Social mobility without gender

The playing field is level. Circumstances cannot hold you back. Everyone has a fair chance to succeed, regardless of who they are and where they come from. This is how Europeans tend to conceptualize a mobile society in 2017, and few would argue against the proposition that universal opportunity is desirable. Why then, given this clear objective, has social mobility become tethered to ‘who you are’ on the European left? The norm is now to view the labor market in terms of gender, class and racial inequalities — explicitly focusing on the factors we are trying to ignore. This line of thinking, though undoubtedly well intentioned, is an incredibly strange way to approach the individualistic concept of social mobility — it could not be any further removed from the opening ideals. It has led the progressive movement down a total dead end.

The problem lies in how internally awkward the criticisms of labor markets become when group representation is given so much weight. Broadly speaking, the left now approaches a meritocratic economy in two ways: first, it looks at the demography of the elite, and notes any incongruity with the demography of the general population. It concludes that certain groups have been excluded from the upper echelons on arbitrary grounds. Second, it looks at the educational privileges of wealthy individuals (UK public schools, for example). It concludes education is for the wealthy, and that opportunities are not equally distributed. Though perhaps not at first glance, these two criticisms are deeply incompatible. One needs to be sub ducted for any future campaign to be coherent, and the former is definitely the weaker of the two.

It could be that each intersectional group has equally qualified, equally competent, equally aspirational professionals in equal proportions in every high-earning sector. In this case, no changes need to be made to the educational system nor the aspirations of young girls / minorities — the labor pool is perfect! All our efforts should be on remedying the rampant discrimination that excludes capable people from the top of each industry. This position posits that employers put productivity second in their hiring processes, so keen are they to maintain ‘culture fit’ and the socio-economic dominance of their cohort.

The second position assumes that the labor force is arranged fairly in a meritocratic way, but that there is a deeply unequal access to education and training. A fleeting knowledge of the French or Italian school system should be enough to justify this assertion. Developing one’s human capital is contingent on one’s circumstances, and a privileged demographic have far better support in this endeavor than most. Supporting failing schools, making university affordable, and encouraging individuals to pursue their individual passions (regardless of expectations) are the efforts which would improve the scenario in this case.

Again, trying to shoehorn both into a social mobility narrative, as the left is currently doing, is an extremely difficult exercise. If education is unfair to women (low representation in STEM fields, for example), then 1:1 gender balances shouldn’t be expected in tech. If women are equally qualified, then education has not been problematic and does not need to be remedied. Is there a middle ground? A bit of both going on? That suggests older women are not as qualified as older men, but are more qualified than their current career status would indicate — what arbitrary level of success represents equal treatment if that is the case?

A failure to deal with these inconsistencies has put the left’s credibility at risk on this topic. Consider how exponents of the gender pay gap fared in the public sphere: ’78 cents to the dollar’ is now widely regarded as a baseless statistic, and the resultant climb-down to a 6–9% adjusted figure was an embarrassment for such a passionate movement. The counterpoints to a pay gap being cited are now widely known, and efforts to defibrillate the issue meet uncontroversial opposition (more girls go to university, more men are in prison). Gender quotas remain one of the least popular proposals anywhere on the political spectrum. This defeat will be repeated ad nauseum until the group politics are dropped — a vision of universal opportunity needs to be offered to voters, not a corrective march towards a golden statistic.

Internal fracturing aside, there are further problems to consider. These points do not even touch on the sociological and biological debates around equal representation, which is mostly where the left/right battle lines have been drawn (case in point: Google Memo). The science, plagued by methodological issues in nature/nurture debates, can often point in different directions — at best, it is ongoing and inconclusive. If the left takes a position that demands scientific assumptions in spite of this, it cedes all uncertainty to the right. It becomes conservative to reserve judgement; to say that women may have an innate proclivity for nursing and men might be naturally drawn to construction work.

An individualistic social mobility approach need not make these assumptions, yet if the assumptions are correct then they will play out in society anyway. Assume schools of equal quality nationwide, subjects advertised effectively to all pupils, and name-blind university admissions processes: there would be no correlation left between gender and subject-specific attainment not dictated by choice. The difficult, controversial questions around group identity and career preferences do not need to be addressed until a society is far downstream of this scenario.

Better still, a universal approach will not be seen as an attack on traditional career choices and does not accuse innumerable European businesses of sexism. It maximizes choice and opportunity for the greatest number, and can highlight the failures of the right coherently and against more resonant criteria. Redraw the debate along these lines, and a credible vision of meritocracy can be part of the left’s arsenal.

About the author: Scott Harvey, 2015 graduate of democracy

Disclaimer: This article reflects the author’s opinion it might not reflect the whole group’s opinion

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