August 6, 2012, by Jonathan
Sporting success and injustice
Those following team GB’s performance at the Olympics will have much to be pleased with this week. But even whilst celebrating, silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead had her mind on matters of justice, remarking on the sexism that she’s confronted in her cycling career. Typically – as with many sports – women cyclists earns less money, enjoy less media celebration, and garner less prestige than men’s cycling. Can such differences be justified?
In the Olympics the race is shorter and with fewer competitors than the men’s road race. Could this justify differential recognition? Surely not: prestige doesn’t usually track length of race, and the mere presence of more competitors does not necessarily make for a more competitive race.
It is sometimes said that women’s sport is less exciting or interesting than men’s sport, but few spectators of Armitstead’s medal winning performance would agree. Moreover, in many women’s sports, the top competitors are outperforming male competitors at lower levels who nonetheless receive more media coverage (compare the coverage of men’s football leagues versus women’s football).
Any attempted justification for unequal pay and esteem that looks to the different terms on which men and women compete ultimately focuses issues on the kinds of structural inequalities that have long been the focus of feminist concerns. If women receive less pay because they work less hours in less well remunerated jobs – then organise society so women have fair access to full-time, well remunerated positions of esteem. If sports-women receive less pay and esteem because their races or matches are shorter – then organise competition so as to be equally demanding as men’s races and matches, and give due recognition to equal participation.
As J.S. Mill remarked (I paraphrase), until society is organised in such a way that does not limit or constrain men and women in these ways, we shall not get a true evaluation of the abilities of either. Such a society really would be something to celebrate!
Interesting that Jess Ennis was asked when she was going to have a baby the day after she got her gold…
Jules, I think you undermine your own argument.
You say “If sports-women receive less pay and esteem because their races or matches are shorter – then organise competition so as to be equally demanding as men’s races and matches, and give due recognition to equal participation.”
I agree. So on the day when women’s cycling road races are the same length as men’s races with a similar number of competitors – or, for example, women’s major tennis matches are decided over five sets, or Jessica Ennis competes in the decathlon rather than the heptathlon – then they will receive the ‘due recognition’ for ‘equal participation’ they deserve.
Until then, by your own reasoning, they will quite rightly continue to receive a lesser level of recognition. So what is your issue?
The idea is that there are two prongs to the argument. On the one hand, the whole argument could be ended by just having the same racing/playing conditions for men and women – there’s no reason to suppose that men and women aren’t capable of competing over the same distance, against the same number of competitors.
But in any case, even in a context of unequal race distances/match lengths, it doesn’t make sense to reward and recognise competitors differentially, because in other (non-gender) contexts, race length and competitor numbers doesn’t track pay or esteem. (Presumably you don’t think the 100m final is less deserving of recognition and remuneration, because it only involves 10 competitors running over a measly 100m).
From a principled point of view, the latter thought means there’s an argument for equal pay and recognition as things stand.
From a practical point of view, having equal race distances/match demands is surely an easier way to establish equal pay and recognition (and is clearly within the capability of elite competitors).
Both points are important to recognise. Compare: in employment one problem is that women didn’t (don’t) have the same access to positions of esteem. A second is that work that is typically done by women tends to get paid less. Addressing income inequality requires (in part) both having women doing high powered jobs that men have done, and giving more recognition and pay to the roles stereotyped as ‘women’s’. Likewise, in sports we need both to have women doing the same distances/match demands as men (in cycling, tennis) and give more recognition to women’s sports as they are (cycling, tennis, football, cricket, etc) – there’s no good reason not to, unless you think there is a general argument for prestige and pay tracking distance and competitor numbers (which seems doubtful).
Hi Tara… facepalm. Sadly not unbelievable though.
I’m glad you agree this whole issue could be ended simply by having men and women compete under the same conditions. Disparities will inevitably occur as soon as one gender competes under different conditions to the other.
But as things stand, it makes perfect sense to recognise competitors ‘differentially’ as you call it: it’s only fair that Daley Thomson should be afforded more respect than Jessica Ennis, because it’s more difficult to excel in ten events than seven. And to win Wimbledon this year, Roger Federer had to win 50% more sets than Serena Williams – 21 sets rather than 14.
Effort and reward should be interlinked. Federer surely deserves more reward than Williams, because he had to spend far more time than her competing to win the competition. They may train just as hard as each other, but prizes should be awarded on how you fare on the field of competition – not on the basis of how hard you may have trained beforehand.
So while there are continual demands for parity in terms of rewards for women, why is this not matched in demanding equality in competing conditions? No-one campaigns for Serena Williams’ right to play a ‘best of five sets’ tennis match against her sister, or for Jessica Ennis’s right to compete in a decathlon with her female peers. Until the campaign for equality pushes for a level playing field in every sense (and not purely in financial gain or other rewards) then for me this argument will always be flawed.
Regarding your point on stereotypical male and female jobs, in the main market forces define the rate of pay for a particular job. To take some examples amongst my closest friends, my male accountant friend earns more than his nursery nurse wife. My engineer neighbour earns more than his fitness instructor girlfriend. I’m not saying any one job is more important than any other, but there will always be more wealth generated in corporate finance and offshore engineering than in childcare and gymnasiums. Market forces dictate this, nothing else. To suggest giving more recognition and pay to selected roles (regardless of function or wealth generated and just to deliver parity with others) sounds like communism to me.
Three quick points:
1) I don’t think we should accept your claim that as playing time or race time increases, so does level of achievement and therefore deserved reward. By that reasoning it is difficult to make sense of highly rewarded but short events (such as the 100metres). So I don’t think we could sensibly endorse that there is such a relationship.
2) A deeper problem given other claims you want to make is that even if there were such a relationship (which I think there isn’t), that would mean that rewards ought to be distributed in accordance with that pattern (of effort and skill, say). That recommendation seems to fly in the face of your claim that rewards should be dictated by market forces. Market forces don’t sustain a pattern of distribution such that rewards track achievement.
3) A further problem I see with your claims is the supposition that market forces can be relied upon to deliver acceptable patterns of distribution. I don’t think they can. I think all sorts of regulations on the market are required in order to secure sensible, just arrangements in society. Unless one has an oddly distorted view of what communism is, we should not think that endorsing any sort of regulations is akin to communism. Our economy already is regulated in many such ways. So the question isn’t whether to endorse any regulation, but rather which regulations are acceptable and just. I think a system which redistributes resources and opportunities to a significantly greater extent than is presently the case is acceptable and more just.
If you’re interested in considering the arguments that I’ve found interesting and persuasive on this matter, I’d recommend a book by Gerry Cohen, called ‘If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’. Cohen has also done some work on incentives and rewards that may be of interest to you. Happy reading!