The most remarkable thing about the make-up of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet is the attention its gender equity has garnered. Trudeau’s appointment of women to 15 of 30 seats is blowing up my social media. His response as to why he did it has practically positioned him the new Feminist Ryan Gosling.
But—as Trudeau’s brilliantly nonchalant shrug so concisely states (sigh)—in 2015 a representative cabinet should not be a BFD. What we should be paying attention to, and posting and tweeting and gramming about, are the countless cases of all male lineups, or panels including a single women (who is invariably peppered with questions about work-life balance), in which it is statistically impossible that the gender make-up of the selected group could be random.
As (Canadian) mathematician Greg Martin explained to The Atlantic last month while discussing the dearth of women speakers at STEM conferences:
If conference speakers were being chosen by a system that treated gender fairly (which is to say, gender was never a factor at all), then in any conference with over 10 speakers, say, it would be extremely rare to have no female speakers at all—less than 5 percent chance, depending on one’s assumption about the percentage of women in mathematics as a whole. Turning that statement around, we conclude that any such conference without any female speakers must have come into being in a system that does not treat gender fairly.
But how often does it happen that a selected group consists of all men, you ask? More than often enough to support the endlessly amusing/ infuriating, Congrats, you have an all male panel! And we’re not just talking about the STEM sector. Just last week, for instance, the Tumblr saluted KPMG Netherlands, the country’s biggest consulting firm, on its hiring of 12 new directors.
As Trudeau says, it’s 2015. What gives?
Martin, for one, doesn’t attribute gender-biased selections to misogyny (which he hopes is rare these days) but rather to implicit bias. You see, there’s an idea out there of what a mathematician or a CEO or an astronaut looks like, just like there’s an idea out there of what women excel in (hint: it’s not math or business or flying spacecraft). It’s this unintentional prejudice that is skewing selection, and so in order to correct for it we have to act intentionally.
Intentionally considering gender in hiring or appointment removes rather than adds bias to the system. And so it’s wrong to paint these conscious selections as in opposition to choosing the best person for the job. A similar false dichotomy arises in the context of considering race in college admissions, where Gallup reports that, “Two-thirds of Americans believe college applicants should be admitted solely based on merit, even if that results in few minorities being admitted, while 28% believe an applicant’s racial and ethnic background should be taken into account to promote diversity on college campuses.”
Moreover, equality of opportunity, appears to promote equality in outcome–in surprising and important ways. For example, a study comparing countries in which women have access to parliamentary positions and participate in the labor market, particularly in high paying positions, to countries in which women hold less political and economic power found that while “in the United States, males have scored between 31 and 36 points higher on the math portion of the SAT in every year since 1994… in countries with the highest levels of gender equality, the gap in math performance disappeared. In fact, in Iceland, which has one of the highest levels of gender equality, females actually outperformed males in math. The female students had lower math scores only in societies where they lacked power.”
And perhaps most salient in the context of consciously promoting gender equality in government, as Canadian Cabinet member Maryam Monsef (all of 30 years old, talk about missed #careergoals) told HuffPost Canada, “The more diverse your organization, your board, or, in this case, cabinet, the more it reflects the realities of the population we are serving, and that can only be a good thing.”
One question that remains for this and any policy of favoring members of a disadvantaged group so as to counterbalance a long history of discrimination is when can we stop? When will we have eliminated bias in the system? In 25 years, as Justice O’Connor proffered in Grutter? For now we look to our northern neighbors, who this week appear to have made one giant stride toward an answer. It’s 2015 and this is a BFD.