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Transatlantic Blog

'Pro-woman' economic policies disempower women

Western society increasingly embraces equality of outcome. Upon this altar, affirmative action policies are untouchable. But when the state tells employers, like the mechanised voice on the London Underground, to “mind the gap,” one ought to be cautious. Quotas and other policies designed to engineer the labor market are not only unfit for their alleged ends and fallacious in their arguments, but they disempower women from making life choices not favored by the government. 

Affirmative action policies aim to favor members of disadvantaged groups who suffered or still suffer from discrimination. Such policies are therefore designed to correct injustices from the past and create more equal and fair societies. Since its very inception, however, affirmative action has been subjected to criticism from several points. One could debate whether government intervention is the right solution to a moral and emotional problem. One could discuss whether we should pursue equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. And, finally, when consummated, one could assess whether such policies accomplished the desired results. But we will instead look at the honesty of its proponents’ claims.

Historically, affirmative action has been more race-oriented in its origin and practice – see, e.g., South Africa and its despicable Black Economic Empowerment policies. In much of the transatlantic sphere today, however, the bulk of its economic interventions have shifted to the basis of sex/gender. Europe is the standard-bearer of these policies. For example, since March 2015 Germany has required the boards of the largest companies to be composed of at least 30 percent women. In 2003, Norway required a 40 percent female quota in publicly traded companies’ boards. Similar laws exist in Italy, France, Spain, and Belgium.

This is only at the national level. The European Commission’s “Europe 2020 strategy” targets also aim to correct purported disparities in the labor market, such as the “gender employment gap.” The number of men of working age who work outside the home was 11.6 percent higher than that of women in 2015. Unlike other statistics about alleged gender gaps, there is indeed such a gap in employment. However, one might wonder why the government should discourage women from staying in the home and tending to family, if that is their choice.

Rather than blame this on the heteropatriarchal structure of Western societies, policymakers ought to ask whether this corresponds to different life choices.

The commission also seeks to reduce the 16.6 percent “gender pay gap,” the difference between the average gross hourly earnings of men and women. The EU presents it as a statistical fact that, ceteris paribus, women are paid less than men. If that were the case, every employer would only hire women. But the statistic is misleading. There are many factors to take into account when comparing pay levels, such as the type of job performed, which sector of the economy it is in, differences in education, the number of hours worked, and prolonged absence from the labor market. In other words, different pay comes from different circumstances and different life choices.

Moreover, the 2020 targets aim to close the gap in STEM jobs. The EU notes that, even though nearly 60 percent of EU university graduates are women, they account for less than one-third of scientists and engineers. Rather than blame this on the heteropatriarchal structure of Western societies, policymakers ought to ask whether this also corresponds to different life choices. For empirical evidence suggests so. The EU claims that only 33 percent of scientists and engineers are women. However, Eurostat statistics from June 2017 also indicate that women only make up 26 percent of students in that field.

Affirmative action policies are a poor remedy to female economic issues for numerous reasons. Individuals ought to be hired based on merit rather than because of quotas. As a result of affirmative action, high-skilled professionals prefer to move to an environment where they are truly valued for their worth and not for their results in the genetic lottery. Witness South Africa, which has suffered a massive brain drain. As a result, the remaining candidates who fit the law’s quota criteria are a worse fit for the job. Some companies choose to pay the fine rather than comply with the quota, because it is less costly than the alternative. This leaves aside the fact that, as a form of reverse discrimination, affirmative action creates the problem that it was meant to solve. While it is unclear whether affirmative action has been successful in achieving its goals, one ought to ask what the opportunity cost has been - in terms of money and social coherence – of pursuing them.

In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the Scottish thinker Adam Smith introduced the notion of the “invisible hand,” which states that individual self-interest creates unintended social benefits for the good of all. By contrast, society was once depicted as a beehive in Bernard Mandeville’s book The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits (1714). Western democracies are indeed more similar to life in a hive in which liberal (“progressive”) social policies are surely on the rise, but classical liberal economic principles are on the decline. The continuous thrust of state economic regulation empowers a liberal progressive agenda, regardless of women's preferences.

The European Commission states on its website that “economic independence is a prerequisite for enabling both women and men to exercise control over their lives and to make genuine choices.” One may ask whether the right to economic self-determination belongs only to employees, and not to employers. But we must ask whether government policy stigmatizes women who decide to make other “genuine choices,” such as being parents.


Juan A. Soto is the founder and executive director of Fundación Arete. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Laws and a bachelor’s degree in Management from the University of Navarra. He did two exchange programs at HEC Montréal in 2013 and the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2015 in order to earn an international degree. Currently, he is studying for an M.A. in Legal and Political Theory at University College London.

He worked as Research Assistant at the Navarra Center for International Development, where he conducted research mainly about sub-Saharan countries, with a special focus on South Africa. He is passionate about international relations, political science, and political philosophy.