Radhika Arora (MPH student & EV 2012) & Pieter Van Wolvelaer (MPH student), with inputs from Werner Soors & Ildikó Bokros (both ITM)
In a recent letter to Lego, seven-year old Charlotte Benjamin wrote to the company requesting them to make more girl-Lego figures – Lego girls who didn’t just go shopping or hang out at the beach, but girls who “went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs.”
We live at a time when you can find women in just about any field of work today; and yet, women, across the world continue to face subtle and outright forms of prejudices at their homes, in the workplace and society in general; the inequities varying by context. There are also fewer women than men in leadership positions and stereotypes abound.
As we sat down to brainstorm on ideas for a blog piece to celebrate the United Nation’s official theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, Equality for women is progress for all, we found ourselves trying to define what equality means for us and what policy measures exist to improve equality among the sexes. One of the policy interventions to encourage workplace participation is through positive discrimination. The term is used for initiatives that reserve quotas for certain social and political groups; quotas may be set at different levels, and at different stages of the selection process. Positive discrimination initiatives have showed to improve women’s participation, at the political level, at the workplace – depending on the context. We wondered if positive discrimination (in all its aspects) is the solution towards improving equality among the sexes. If equality means giving women an equal footing in society, should it also not mean ensuring that roles traditionally considered ‘female’, such as nursing and midwifery are also open to men? And, if a woman’s place is in the kitchen, why then are there more male chefs?
Positive discrimination initiatives to boost women’s participation at the local and national political level have been in place in many countries for more than two decades now. In 1995, the European Court of Justice ruled that a positive action law, which provided for the promotion of equally qualified women when under-represented in an area of employment, violated the laws prohibiting gender discrimination in the EU. This came after the Kalanke ruling, where a woman was given automatic priority – if two candidates (1 male and 1 female) were equally qualified – in sectors where women were underrepresented.
Similar initiatives have been taken in other parts of the world as well. For example, India, a country which has seen powerful female leaders, both in modern times as well as historically, continues to struggle with providing large proportions of women with basic human rights, including the right to education and healthcare. In such a diverse and contradictory society, positive discrimination towards women can provide a much-needed boost to increasing the participation of women in the formal [and informal] workforce (women comprise of 94% of the workforce in the informal manufacturing sector in India). A Women’s Reservation Bill which is a constitutional amendment, seeks to reserve one-third of all seats in the parliament (Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies) and was introduced in 2008; it is yet to be passed. However, reservations for women leadership positions at the village level in India were made in 1992 (73rd Amendment).
Against or for?
“The result is to mark the most disadvantaged class as inherently deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time such a class can come to appear privileged, the receipt of special treatment and underserved largesse. Thus, an approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can end up creating injustices of recognition.” Nancy Fraser, 2008
If we use the example of India’s languishing Women’s Reservation Bill, one of the arguments opposing the bill is based on the rationale that reservations have the potential to create bias in perception – that the women have not reached that position based on merit. In the case of positive discrimination in favour of other disadvantaged social groups in the country, i.e. reservations for scheduled castes/scheduled tribes (SC/ST) and other backward classes in India, anecdotal evidence suggests workplace bias based on the fact that the person concerned received the position based on a quota and not merit. And so, we wonder has the law succeeded in making the workplace and education system more inclusive, or has it, instead, reinforced stigmatisation by forever relegating a segment of society to the status of the disadvantaged?
In Belgium as well, the debate regarding positive discrimination towards increasing the participation of women in the political sphere has also lead people to question whether the women are in their position because of merit or because of gender.
Aside from the questioning of merit, studies on positive discrimination policies have indicated a positive impact, as in the case of India’s reservations for women (along with SC/ST) at the local political level – one study indicates a higher level of involvement of community women in the political sphere, where there is a female political head. In addition, the study found differences in investments in public goods in villages with a female leader.
But, is it enough?
Discrimination against the disadvantaged or vulnerable populations isn’t restricted by geography; stories on sexism or discrimination come from both liberal and conservative societies. For the male author of this piece, who lives in what might be considered a liberal society, reverse sexism showed its face in his choice of profession – midwifery: a traditionally female role. Denied admission to a midwifery program based on his gender (male), rather than on his grades or skills, it was only perseverance that helped him find a university that accepted a male candidate to a midwifery program (a traditionally female role). More recently, in 2009, an opportunity to work as a fully qualified midwife at a regional hospital in Belgium was denied to him because male midwives were not welcome.
While we don’t deny that in the current sociocultural and political context, positive discrimination can be one way to achieve a more equitable participation of the sexes in governance, education and health, we can’t help but wonder if the buck should stop here. Someone recently asked us, “when can we reach a point where being female/black/lower caste/gay isn’t something you need to overcome to get somewhere?” Now, let that be an essential question towards equality not just for women, but progress and equality for all!