For more years than I can count, I have (as I previously blogged) believed that – barring certain biological factors such as a womb – there is nothing about a particular group that makes them more fitted to do a specific task, that fitness is best judged on the individual’s capabilities. However, over the last few weeks I have pondered whether there are circumstances in which a social inclination justifies discrimination.
One of the hairdressers near my flat was advertising for a “Saturday Girl”. My initial reaction was that, even if it was a job title and not a specification, this contained both age and gender prejudice. However, once I had attacked it my thoughts, as the thoughts of lawyers are prone to do, almost immediately turned to how the statement might be defended. Ten minutes of walking later I arrived at my destination with only comic hypotheses, straw splitting excuses, and the theory that there are some people who – incorrectly – would trust the opinion of a young woman over any man when it came to hairstyles. Although I could therefore see possible business sense rather than personal prejudice in the wording I retained my opinion that it was improper.
Despite my conscious having dismissed the question, it remained in my unconscious. Next time I passed the hairdresser I noticed the advertisement was gone, but also remembered a past trip to Bristol Airport for Fire Marshal training. Because the Brigade training ground was air-side, I needed to pass through the staff security point. In addition to a metal scanner, this required a pat-down search. When I arrived all the male officers were occupied so I informed the female officer I had no objection to being patted down by her. She informed me airport policy required a male officer to search men and vice versa. Here the issue of discrimination is more complex.
Superficially this seemed an unnecessary policy: if I was happy to be searched by either gender then it was merely delaying things to require a male officer. However, the briefest of thought revealed the policy also provides protection to the officers: if an officer were uncomfortable with searching a person of the opposite gender then, were there no policy, they would potentially face unspoken organisational pressure to search the opposite gender; this would produce an uncomfortable working environment and, if they capitulated, might result in less effective searches. So, a person’s belief there is a difference between the genders can be a sensible reason for permitting a policy that requires some posts to be held by a particular gender.
The question is where does the dividing line lie? Requiring hairdressers to be young women seems unnecessary enough that we decry it, but requiring Customs officers not to search people of the opposite gender seems a reasonable action. In these cases the difference is based on the degree to which social conditioning brings reproduction into the equation; in a world where close contact between the sexes is not considered by most people as having a sexual component then there would be little if any basis to discriminate.
Of course we do not yet live in such a world.
Are we then better permitting the prejudice to influence decisions, or is it better for both the law and the actions of ethical people to ignore the negative results of overriding the prejudice? The history of mixed race units in various armed forces (where potentially the need for trust is among the greatest) supports the answer that ignoring the prejudice will bring a temporary detriment followed by the vast decrease in prejudice.
I firmly believe in living my life like the early days of a better nation, but cannot avoid the belief that any transition must also seek to accommodate the beliefs of those who see the world differently. As I also believe that my ethical choices – while seeking to be good – might be made from imperfect knowledge, I almost certainly benefit from my own caveat.
Do you feel discrimination can be justified if a strong enough common belief exists? If so, which beliefs should qualify?