Featured Philosop-her: Anca Gheaus

I am very happy to welcome Anca Gheaus as the first featured philosop-her of the new year.  Anca works at the University of Sheffield. She has been grappling for a while with the question of what makes a society gender just, for instance in her article ‘Gender Justice’ published in 2012 by the Journal for Ethics & Political Philosophy 6(2). Other recent publications include ‘The feasibility constraint on the concept of justice’ in the Philosophical Quarterly 63(252), 2013 and ‘The right to parent one‘s biological baby’ in The Journal of Political Philosophy 20(4), 2012.

Her post follows.

–MK

Gender justice and the costs of sexist norms

The gendered division of labour – at home and in the workplace – is a main culprit for the fact that women lag behind men with respect to economic, political and social status. Indeed, many people think that the gendered division of labour is the major obstacle to gender justice in societies where women have achieved legal equality to men[1].

But is the gendered division of labour always unjust – that is, even when the individuals choose it freely? If yes, there is a case for using policy measures to eliminate it. Yet, some women claim that they desire to perform what is traditionally considered ‘women’s work’ – and, in general, that they prefer a ‘feminine’ lifestyle. Does this mean that, ideally, policies that influence how people organise work and family should accommodate equally preferences for gendered and preferences of non-gendered lifestyles? For instance, should we aim for extended (subsidised) maternal leaves allowing women to stay longer at home after they give birth to, or adopt, a child? Should we facilitate ‘different but equal’ lifestyles for women and men? Many, although not all, feminists want to resist this conclusion.

One way to approach this contentious issue is by noting that  individual gendered preferences aren’t likely to be genuine, given existing gender norms and their role in socialising. A problem with this approach is that people often strongly identify with their preferences even while accepting that their preferences have been formed in unjust conditions; the mere origin of the preference does not mean it is legitimate to frustrate it. Another problem is that discounting women’s preferences can easily come across as condescending.

Yet, it is possible to account for the injustice of the gendered division of labour without reference to adaptive preferences, by focusing on the costs imposed by gender norms.  Consider an idealised case in which women and men shoulder the same overall burdens and enjoy the same overall level of benefit by conforming to gendered lifestyles: say, a ‘perfect’ heterosexual family, intact over time, and adopting an equal, but gendered, division of labor. This may come in the more extreme form of the man as a full-time breadwinner and the woman as a full-time homemaker. Or it may take a more modern shape, with the man holding a full-time job and doing some housework and care and the woman working a part time job while also managing and doing the main bulk of the housework and care. If both partners work the same amount of time and enjoy equal benefits, is there any injustice involved?

I think no injustice is involved in such an arrangement if the society in which this couple lives does not make their gendered arrangement the least costly lifestyle option. In other words, this is not a case of injustice provided the couple in question would find it no more costly to share paid and unpaid work equally. This claim accounts well for the intuition that all is fine provided we can be sure that people make choices without the pressure of gender norms coming in the form of individuals’ expectations or constraints of the labour market.

More generally, I propose the following principle meant to capture the nature of injustices based on gender and to guide us in getting closer to a gender just society: 

A society is gender just only if the costs of a gender-neutral lifestyle are – all  other things being equal – lower than, or at most equal to, the costs of gendered lifestyles.

Because the principle is meant to explain the injustice of a very widerange of phenomena, the sense of ‘costs’ is similarly wide. The costs can be material: for example financial, time or effort; or psychological: self-respect, a good relationship with one’s body and emotions; or social: reputation, social acceptance and valuable social relationships. So the principle can account for cases other than the gendered division of labour, including, for instance, the injustice of women having less safe access to streets at night, facing higher social penalties for being successful, or being judged as less reliable knowers. In all cases, in order to achieve the same desirable results as men – the same levels of mobility, social acceptance or credibility – they will have to pay a higher price of a kind or another.

Since all gender norms impose some costs on individuals making gender-atypical choices, they appear as such incompatible with gender justice. Even when the costs of a particular choice are not prohibitive, and therefore individuals are making a free choice, gender norms compromise the equality of women’s and men’s access to what they have reason, and sometimes choose, to pursue. Gender norms are as such sexist.

Both women and men pay the costs of sexist norms. I believe the overall costs imposed on women are, even in liberal democracies, much higher than those imposed on men. This is a point of dispute. But if you agree with my account of the nature of gender injustice, the complaint that men, too, suffer injustice resulting from gender norms will obviously not be counted against, but in favour of promoting a feminist agenda.

To advance gender justice, then, it is to aim – ideally – at a world free of gender norms (and, hence, of gender.) Policies that would be desirable in such a world need not be desirable in our, hopefully transitional, societies. For instance, if there were no gender norms it may be good without qualification to have longer parental leaves; men and women would share them equally[2], and neither would pay economic or other career penalties. By contrast, in the world as we know it, the design of parental leaves will have to take into account women’s propensity to take leaves much more often than men: policies will have to either eliminate the gendered costs that women who do not take such leaves are likely to incur or else lower the costs for men taking the leave.


[1]          I use the classical distinction between sex and gender, the first referring to biological features, the second to social meanings associated with sex.

[2]          The reader will notice I entirely bracket the possibility that gendered choices are determined by ‘nature’ rather than ‘culture’.

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