Monday, March 05, 2007

What is Discrimination?

Two congruent events have come together to inspire this post. The first is the recent New York Times Article Mom's mad -- and she's organized, and the second is the fact that less than an hour ago, I left a thought-provoking debate in Randall Kennedy's Race Relations class between young Ben Shapiro, Prof. Kennedy, and the remainder of the class. The subject was whether it was valid to compare racial struggles to those of gays, and centered around the question of whether behavior is a significant enough distinction to make the comparison invalid.

Which brings me to the subject at hand. Theoretically, conservatives like Shapiro would have no objection to parental-based discrimination. After all, parenting is a behavior, it is even more so a choice. It is a far cry from race, gender, and ethnicity, all of which are beyond the (initial) control of the person in question. It is even a less objectionable discrimination on these terms, both because the choice of sexual orientation is very much in doubt, and because parenting is distinctive in the fact that their behavior creates a very real obstacle.

No one is going to leave work early because they are gay. Someone will not spend an hour on the phone midday because they are black. No lesbians are demanding special employer expenditures by virtue of their sexual orientation, at best additional policies requesting same-sex partner benefits require the same exact expense as that of straight employees. And no one is going to demand that their job be held open for them for months simply because they are Italian.

Simply put, the interference with job performance that is caused by being a mother is very real, and a compelling, pragmatic argument against hiring them. To state that this is 'discrimination' begs the question of what discrimination really means - no, not the dictionary definition, but in the vernacular sense that it is being used. No one is refusing to hire new mothers because of some anti-mother sentiment. The tide in this country is quite sharply in the opposite direction.

So the distinction here to be drawn is between discrimination - which is making choices based on characteristics, and bias - which is making distinctions based on a negative perception of a group, usually unsubstantiated one. Because we use the terms nearly interchangeably, it is an easy to confusion to make. But insofar as we are using the term 'discrimination' negatively, what we are really mean is bias. In this sense, mothers are never, ever discriminated against.

The article asserts:
Using data and personal stories of mothers who have been discriminated against in the workplace, the film emphasizes that mothers are less likely to be hired, will make less money, and are more scrutinized for wrongdoing than either single women or men. The reason it cites: There are not enough family-friendly policies in place to help parents.
. . .
At many house parties, the issue that has generated the most discussion is something activists call "maternal profiling." That is using information about a woman's status as a parent to make managerial decisions, such as whether to hire her and how much to pay her.
If I went into an interview and told them that I was the spokesperson for No Kidding, that this often amounted to a 20 hour per week job, and that it occasionally resulted in hour-long emergency phone conversations, I would be less likely to be hired. Fortunately for me, I share the role with my husband, a fact I emphasized when explaining this necessary inclusion on my resume. If this was not the case, would I be discriminated against when someone passed me over for a job? Of course not. The decision would not be based on who I am, but on my ability to do the job well. That is a fair and valid reason not to hire someone.

This point becomes even clearer when we realize the limits of discrimination laws in employment. Although employers are required to make reasonable accommodations when doing so would allow a disabled person to do a job just as well, this is about as far as it goes. If a person has kidney disease that requires time-consuming dialysis, it is valid for a law firm that has a billing minimum to refuse to hire, even to fire that person who cannot meet it. This isn't discrimination either. It is merely applying a blanket policy, and applying it to all equally.

If employers can use physical, uncontrollable characteristics as he basis for denying employment, why should doing so on the basis that one is a mother be any more offensive? The only answer I can find is that it is based on assumptions about how well mothers can do their jobs; assumptions that are often false. In my opinion, this is an open question. It can easily be argued that this is a fair assumption; that a time-consuming, vitally important commitment outside work will often take priority, require immediate attention, and will otherwise interfere with work. Are these women asserting that mothers do not take more time off, that they never have to leave to pick up a sick child, that they never leave early to see a child's play? I think one would have to concede that these situations are common to almost every mother.

Now if the objection is based on extrapolating these assumptions to all women, I would need a lot more information. Are people refusing to hire women with stay at home husbands? Are there really a significant number of mothers who do not have these conflicts? And are these rare women really blocked from demonstrating this fact?

I will concede, however, that some of the assertions are valid complaints. If mothers are really being more harshly criticized for the same mistakes, this would stem from assumptions, not from actual performance concerns. However, such a charge is necessarily made subjectively, and would be very difficult to substantiate. If they are really being paid less for the same work, that is also a problem. How sure are these advocates that less pay isn't based on the fact that they work less? Absent some proof that this is not the cause, this charge, too, needs testing.

Lastly, the real danger of MomsRising is that there is no opposition. Like McCarthy's blacklist, people are understandably afraid to oppose the demands made by this group. Being 'anti-mother' would be political suicide for any politician. It is sort of like the conversation-stopping "Why do you hate freedom?" rhetoric, except much less funny. No matter how valid the claims are, when the demands of such groups are so many, and the cost so great, there needs to be someone pushing back from the other side, someone to challenge their assumptions and point out the costs to society. Childfree people just do not have that sort of voice, organization, or legitimacy yet. I fear that until we do, the agenda of this group will rage on, checked only by the slow process of democracy. I am beginning to appreciate our founding fathers all the more for purposefully designing it that way.

Technorati Tag:

1 comment:

Stacy said...

the film emphasizes that mothers are less likely to be hired, will make less money, and are more scrutinized for wrongdoing than either single women or men.

Is it the article, or the film the one making the apparent assumption that all married women are mothers (and all single women are not)?

The reason it cites: There are not enough family-friendly policies in place to help parents.

By parents, they mean mothers, apparently, since fathers don't seem to have this problem... I know this has been mentioned a zillion times before, but it is what leaps out to me when I read things like this.