On the useless concepts of race and gender

In my personal battle against irrational thinking I’ve come to think about the categories “race” and “gender” and how they are used to categorize people and to make policy. There is a strong suspicion that Asian-Americans are discriminated against by several top American universities. There will probably soon be a quota for the percentage of women on the boards of directors of Swedish companies (Norway already has that). And there is still discrimination against homosexual and transgender persons within e.g. the military services of various countries.

There is a fundamental problem with using such broad labels to describe people and for making policy. A person’s background of course impacts a person’s abilities and opportunities. This background may in turn,  of historical, cultural, or other reasons, correlate with a person’s color of skin or gender. A person with educated and affluent parents will have better chances in life, regardless of in which country he or she is born. A girl who has been taught that computer programming is for boys has a handicap in starting up her own Internet company. But it is not the color of the skin or the gender that is the physical cause of a person’s intellectual abilities.

If the color of one’s skin was a true predictor of wealth and health, then a logical cure for poor income and ill health would be to medically change the color of one’s skin, right? With the same logic a sex change would be a good fix for poor income? (Because of exactly the prejudices I’m writing about these remedies could actually make a difference but for all the wrong reasons.) If we impose a gender quota on boards of directors, are we not saying that there is a “female perspective” that is in some way different from a “male perspective”; that our physical attributes are bound to determine how we think.

The fact that we use “race” and “gender” as a basis for policy making in my opinion thus only permanents our prejudices about the correlation between those categories and our inner qualities. These concepts are therefore not only illogical, they are outright misleading and an obstacle for progressive policy making.

We should scrap these labels and seek for categories that actually matter and that are possible to affect through policy and other measures. We could look at the correlation between family income and a child’s chances later in life. We could look for the correlation between how differently parents treat boys and girls. Or we could look for correlations between cultural norms and various outcomes. Those are things that are (more or less) possible to impact if we wish for a better outcome.

If we want a more equal society (which incidentally correlates with higher happiness and better health), we may want to encourage (financially or through policy) able students from a challenging social or economic background to study at the university. Such student do not all have the same skin color, come from the same country or are of a particular gender. If we want more effective boards, then we should look for people with particular skills that are needed, be it technical skills or knowledge about certain markets. It does not necessarily follow that having or not having a certain type of genitals is a sign of such skills. (There may be some physical difference between male and female brains but the inter-gender differences are in any case much smaller than the intra-gender variations.)

I recently happened to stumble upon (perhaps because I had this topic on my mind) two articles that illustrate my point. I’ll conclude with a quote from each article:

Air Force Secretary Deborah James expressed openness to allowing transgender troops to serve. “From my point of view, anyone who is capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve.”

USAToday, June 4, 2015

Those arguing that women leaders are different, and better, may have the best of intentions. But they are piling flimsy evidence on dubious argument to produce politically correct hokum. In some societies such claims risk reinforcing stereotypes about the sort of job that women are “good for”. The only enlightened policy for selecting leaders is to judge people purely on their individual merits. Anything else is just prejudice in disguise.

The Economist, June 6, 2015

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