Ask yourself this: If women with the same skills as men are getting only 75 cents for every dollar a man earns, why are men not pricing themselves straight out of the market? Ask yourself this question, and you are brought up sharp against the moribund logic of equity initiatives. The fact that the wily entrepreneur doesn't ditch men in favour of women suggests that a different set of skills rather than a conspiracy to suppress women is at work.
But let's back up a little. In July, British Columbia's Public Service Minister Moe Sihota announced his plan to open a new office dedicated to increasing the representation of visible minorities in the civil service. The Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer confirmed in his September 25 column that the B.C. government would ensure henceforth that applicants from underrepresented groups are given preference in hiring over members of the general population. Since the groups deemed in need of special protection are aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, women and racial minorities, those left out of the loop by default are white, able-bodied males. So far, the debate over these initiatives has ignored entirely the rickety scaffolding undergirding employment equity policies.
To the meat of the equity argument: Should the owner of a factory that produces dangerous chemicals not be permitted to demur from employing a pregnant woman? What about the lawsuit such an employer risks were the child to suffer brain damage? This is precisely the kind of common sense consideration an employer is barred from making under equity policies. By government fiat and by dint of legislation like the Federal Employment Equity Act, a host of legitimate business considerations are rendered illegal in hiring practices. In teaching institutions preferential hiring has the effect of decreasing the pool of qualified applicants from which faculty is to be drawn.
Central to the equity argument is that the proportions of these non-mutually exclusive groups in any given societal arena should ideally approximate their proportion in the general population. That visible minorities comprise only 6.1% of B.C.'s civil service is then said to be proof that discrimination is at work, because they should ideally make up 17% of the ranks. Similarly, women, who make up approximately 50% of the population, should, according to equity logic, make up half of the civil service, or half of a given franchise, or half of a university department. When this objective fails - then equity proponents shout discrimination.
It matters not a bit that the law prohibits discrimination between individuals on the basis of racial or gender based characteristics in the practice of hiring, promotion or remuneration. Equity proponents still insist systemic discrimination is the only reason women and visible minorities are underrepresented in the professions compared to white men. But in the process of this faulty backward logic, equity supporters ignore the complex variables that mediate working behaviour. When it comes to men and women, the discrepancies in pay and representation arise not due to discrimination but to "different priorities men and women have in the way they balance work and family." Women bear children, leave the work force and then reenter it, while men of the same age have had an uninterrupted continuum of employment.
A statistical analysis of the reasons for the wage gap by Canadian economist Walter Block shows that the pay gap between men and women is the result of "the asymmetrical effects of the institution of marriage on male and female incomes". The division of labour within a marriage is unequal, writes Dr. Block, with women taking on more of the household chores and exhibiting less of an attachment to the labour force. When women don't marry they have equal productivity and thus equal salaries as their never-married male counterparts, notes Block. Any remaining wage discrepancies between men and women after the impact of marriage has been weighted are attributable to the fact that women tend to avoid highly paid fields like engineering, mathematics, and science.
As unsettling as these findings are they indicate that when age, education, experience, the choice of full-time versus part-time employment, the length of time spent in the work force, and language proficiency are factored into the wage and promotional equation, differences in earnings between groups practically disappear. And with them wilts the justification for equity policies. By the same token, the low number of visible minorities in B.C.'s civil service may be a result of the highly desirable nature of these positions, which makes the turnover in these jobs low. Visible minorities may lack linguistic prerequisites, or may simply prefer to work in the private sector.
In any case, there is a tenuous line between encouraging underrepresented groups and barring those who are not deemed burdened by pigment or gender. Equity initiatives invariably cross the line and shade into the penumbra of reverse discrimination. They also interfere with an employer's right to enter into a contract voluntarily and freely. While some may welcome such an anti-free market nostrum, it is important to remember that freedom of contract (by both employer and employee) is as much a foundation of a free and civil society as is equality before the law. Furthermore, we are far more in danger in contemporary Canada of violating the former precept than the latter. While preferential hiring might at one time have been justified to attack active prejudice, this is no longer the case. If it is still the case in some quarters, then dealing with this prejudice should be the object of legal initiatives and law enforcement.