It’s a Man’s Life in the WAAF

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.

Pantomime Dames
Would a female Pantomime Dame be as funny?
Lee CarsonCC BY NC ND 2.0)

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?

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8 thoughts on “It’s a Man’s Life in the WAAF

  1. Interesting. It seems to me that these things progress at their own pace, our opinions pro and con, of course, being an essential part of the process. Is that too much like saying don’t look too closely?

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    1. Certainly there is a point where two (or three, or X) people’s opinion are clearly the vestiges of a historical prejudice, so for a certain value of close, not looking too closely is good sense.

      However, the tendency of most people toward unexamined conservatism makes me wonder if letting things go at their own pace is extending those prejudices.

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  2. When I worked in a prison, the female officers were allowed to pat down male inmates, however the male officers were not allowed to pat down female inmates. I think with the strict policy at the airport, it aims to protect the security officers from claims that the consumer was touched inappropriately during the pat down rather than worry about whether the officer feels comfortable about touching someone of the opposite sex in intimate areas.

    Just a FYI. I enjoyed your post.

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    1. A policy that applies different rules to cross sex contact depending on the sex of the officer seems discriminatory: did anyone ever give a reason why there was a difference?

      I can see your point about protecting against inappropriate contact allegations but feel that can be covered by a more general complaints policy, so does not justify a sex based exclusion.

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  3. I agree it is not a simple an issue as it often seems at first glance from either side of the issue. I frequently notice the subtle and integrated ways discrimination is continued and promoted in peoples minds in the subtleties of life. Simple things such as choice of phrase, title, wording, exclamation, or focus can directly or indirectly influence the spread or decrease of discrimination. Choosing to actively avoid those things sometimes takes thought and consideration of purpose and method to determine both need and process. Long standing job titles or social statements are excellent examples of where is the line and when do you change it. Where I work, other than the owner, there are no males over 21, we are all female. Several times I have wondered why exactly, is it a lack of desire on their part or a unconscious discrimination on the owner’s part? Specifics in use of phrasing or job titles seem to vary by generation, but the discrimination inherent does not grow less in current society, it seems to simply move to other areas.

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    1. Apparent sex bias is a great example of how the surface might not show actual issue: the imbalance might be a result of an unrelated sex bias.

      For example, if an employer is based near to a school and offers flexible hours then the greater convenience for primary carers (who are usually female) of the location would boost female applications. If the employer employs the best applicant irrespective of sex then this will statistically produce an imbalance despite the policy being entirely non-discriminatory.

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