True Equality Means Hiring Based on Talent, Not Gender

I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.

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I am a feminist. I am also an economist. But I don’t think we need more women in economics. Let me explain.

Whether or not people admit it, feminism is a nuanced ideology, and one that takes on a variety of forms—many of which are fundamentally opposed to each other. That being said, if the root of feminism is, as Emma Watson so eloquently put it, “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” then I most certainly qualify.

What’s more, I dislike being pigeonholed due to my gender. This is not to say that I think men and women are exactly the same. In fact, I think it somewhat naive to assume that the biological differences between males and females would have no implications on their respective personalities, abilities, behavior, or even interests. When it comes these intangible qualities, I think it is unnecessary and dangerous to draw too many conclusions about a person from his or her sex. Unnecessary because whatever can be surmised about someone’s personality or abilities from his sex, that and much more can be drawn from the individual himself. Dangerous because I don’t think we really know with any accuracy or precision the implications that one’s sex has on his personality, cognitive ability, character, and so on.

The fact is that any general lines we can draw between the sexes in these areas are disturbed by the complexity of each individual. Even if it were true that men more frequently excel at carpentry, if an individual woman shows an aptitude for it, on what grounds can her objective ability be rejected? If a man shows an interest in needlework, who’s to deny his passion? Thus, in terms of job or college applications, I think it right for individuals to be judged on their individual merits rather than assumptions based on their sex. Equal rights and opportunities? I’m there.

But there is something about the way that we discuss gender equality that unsettles me. Take me, for example:

I majored in economics in college because I like it and I’m good at it. I took an economics class in high school and found that my mind clicked into the subject in a way that it did not click into others. Majoring in it seemed to me like the next logical step. When I announced my decision, however, my peers and mentors encouraged and applauded me with an urgency that confused me.

“Only 15 percent of economists are female,” they exclaimed.

“We need more female economists,” they would say, “We need more women pursuing quantitative subjects.”

Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the encouragement. I was happy that my success in economics was regarded as a necessity by my professors, advisers, counselors, and friends. But it was their collective reasoning that disturbed me. My interest and ability did not necessitate my success, according to them—my gender did. They seemed to think that because roughly half of the world’s people are women, so too roughly half of the world’s economists ought to be women. The ratio of women to men in the field is lopsided and thus, unacceptable.

This is a fairly common line of reasoning. Feminists often use lopsided-gender ratios in various occupations as evidence of sexism and cause for change. While such statistics certainly merit attention, they are not in and of themselves problematic. Insisting that they are implies that gender equality is found in the equal distribution of men and women in a given field—as though we cannot have true equality until the demographics of every major, occupation, and hobby perfectly reflect the demographics of society at large.

It is this notion, my fellow feminists, of which I think we should beware.

Do we need more female economists? Do we need an equal number of men and women pursuing each subject for equality to exist? I don’t think so.

I think we need people to have the freedom to make prudential use of their own talents and abilities without hitting arbitrarily constructed walls. We need job candidates to be assessed on their individual merits and performances rather than on preconceived notions about their genders. We need individuals to be free to pursue their respective areas of interest without wrongful discrimination, regardless of prevailing gender ratios.

This, I think, is what we really want. This is equality.

And if that day comes, when the walls of arbitrary discrimination have been torn down, when the barriers constructed of faulty assumptions about men and women have been stripped away, we may find that men and women still generally pursue different interests. We may find that, even in the absence of sexism, the lopsided statistics we today use as evidence of wrongful discrimination still stand. We may find that, in a society where applicants are selected based on merit rather than stereotypes, that the ratio of female to male economists is not one to one.

And that’s okay.

In fact, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Because having “equal opportunities” means having equal freedom to turn them down.

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