Sunday, June 29, 2008

Six Stories


Metalholic runs a machine-tool manufacturing business. It manufactures widgets, many of them for government agencies. He is a progressive-minded fellow, but not exactly a leftist (as a businessman!). He votes Liberal-Democrat. He believes fervently in equal opportunites for everyone, regardless of sex/gender or ethnicity/race. But when he advertises for machine-tool engineers what he finds typically is that all the applicants are male. He would be willing to employ a suitable qualified woman; but there just don't seem to be female machine-tool engineers out there (even if there were, his staff turnover is quite low - since he is a good employer - so that even if he employed, say, two women for every one man for all future applicants it would be many years before the male: female ratio of machine-tool engineers in his employ was 50/50). Metaholic knows that this probably reflects "societal sexism" - girls are probably not sufficiently encouraged to study science or engineering, as children they play with dolls rather than Meccano sets, and so on. Metalholic as a progressive-minded person (and father of three girls) wishes it were not so; but what can he do? He has a business to run.
Now the Government is requiring that he produce an audit, showing the relative wages of men and women in his employment. The audit shows men earn much more (there is a big "pay gap") - the reason for this is that the highly-skilled machine -tool engineers are highly paid as compared to his other staff (many of whom are women) who do different jobs. The Government are going to introduce "contract compliance" policies. Unless Metaholic can reduce the "pay gap" he will lose business. Metaholic muses: "But the pay-gap does not compare like-with-like since it compares people doing different jobs. And, yes, it is evidence of "sexism in society at large" but it is not evidence of discrimination by me".


Many years ago Bob and Kate both applied for a job in marketing. They were similarly qualified, but Kate had more experience. Her interview was dreadful, the chairman of the panel asked if she intended to have children, and did that mean she would soon be leaving her job? He did not ask Bob the same question. Bob got the job.
Over the years Bob rose to become a middle-manager. Over his lifetime his average earnings have exceeded those of Kate, who did eventually get a job, but who struggled for promotion.
Bob is a liberal-minded fellow. He believes in equal opportunties.
It is nearly thirty years later. At Bob's company they now have a "positive action" policy. They want to encourage women and ethnic minorities. Bob is a great supporter of this (he, of course, is not privy to what happened at Kate's interview years earlier, he has always believed he was appointed on merit).
Today Bob chairs the panel which interviews two candidates for a job in the company: Fiona and George. They are both similarly qualified, but George has more experience. When the interviews are over Bob proposes that Fiona be employed. She is perfectly capable of doing the job, and the company employes too few women and needs to close the "pay gap" if it is not to fall foul of the government's "contract compliance" policy. Fiona gets the job.
But we can see that favouring Fiona does not rectify the injustice done to Kate, and that it was Bob, not George, who was the beneficiary of the earlier injustice.


It is true that Bob and George belong to the same "group" (men) and Kate and Fiona to a different "group" (women); and it is true also that comparing one group to the other shows than men are advantaged compared to women. The justification for favouring Fiona over George is that she belongs to a "disadvantaged group".
George comes from inner-city Manchester. He grew up on a council housing estate awash with drugs and crime. He never knew his father. But his mother was a determined and decent women. She raised three children on a low income and encouraged George in every way. He did badly at his A-levels at the first attempt, but went to night-school to take them again (while holding down a job as a supermarket shelf stacker) and was successful. At University he excelled. His mother is very proud of him.
Fiona grew up in Leafy Meadow in the posher part of Didsbury. She attended a private school until she was 11, and then went to Manchester Grammar. When she was struggling with her A-levels Daddy employed a private tutor. Daddy is a successful lawyer. Mummy teaches at the University. Fiona does not see much of either of them.
When Bob argued in favour of employing Fionna he pointed to the "pay gap"; he argued that women were unfairly disadvantaged compared to men, and something should be done about it.
(If Metaholic had heard this he would, in principle, have agreed).


Madge lives on a council housing estate. She is a single-parent mother with three children. She struggles on income support. She did have a part-time job in a local pub for a few hours three days a week. It helped a little. But she became worried when one of the other bar-maids was caught by social security and had her income support reduced. She gave up the job. Today, the kids are at school. Madge is watching day-time television. There is someone called Harriet Harman taking about women "banging their heads off the glass ceiling" in The City. "Which city?", Madge wonders, "Who has a glass ceiling?" Madge is not well-educated. She struggles to read. She was never any good at school. No one encouraged her. But she loves her kids and is determined that they should do well. She wishes she could help them but their school work is too difficult for her.
That evening Fionna is celebrating in a wine-bar in Didsbury. She is so glad that she got the job, but she is worried about promotion prospects: "Everyone knows that the glass ceiling is a reality", she says.


Tommy is in the library. He is looking through the books that are being sold-off because no has borrowed them for ages. One old book is called "Socialism: an Introduction". Beside it is another: "Reducing Social Equality". It seems no one is interested in these things. He goes over to where the new books are. There is a very glossy one entitled: "The Politics of Identity: Ethnicity and Gender". Tommy looks at it but it isn't his cup of tea. Actually he only came in to borrow a book to read to his young daughter. He sees one: "Through the Looking Glass", and leaves with it.


Madge is arbitrating a dispute between two of her children: Damon (aged 10) and Kylie (aged 8). She knows that Damon is more often the one who is at fault. But this time it seems it is Kylie who is at fault. Kylie protests, pointing to all the other occasions when Damon was at fault. Madge is at her wits end. Then she remembers something, something she wants to teach Kylie: "Two wrongs don't make a right", she says.


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