I enjoyed Catriona Paisey and Betty Wu's article in the Conversation, which argues that the gender pay gap is not the only discriminatory inequality that government should look to examine and perhaps address. They are right that unequal distributions of goods that correlate to attributes that should not affect worth (e.g. gender, ethnicity, originating social class) are evidence of some form of problem. It seems likely that, for whatever reasons, the economy does give some types of people better chances than others. That said, these approaches rarely open the can of worms which is what we think about inequality in general.
Much of the politics in this area seems to be based on a form of luck egalitarianism. That is, because the individual can't be held responsible for whether they were born male or female, white or brown, and so on, then they shouldn't get any detriment. This is opposed to 'desert', where society accepts that someone who works hard should be rewarded more than someone who is lazy. So, the argument goes, we should try to do something to equalise distributions based on the former, but not on the latter.
However, what do we count as luck? Is being born clever luck? Is having parents who read to you at night luck? Is choosing an interest, aged 10, that happens to coincide with what the economy wants 20 years later luck? In the end, almost everything might have an element of luck.
Hence my response to the article, below. I don't think we can iron out all effects of luck as it is everywhere. Therefore, it makes more sense to address inequality more generally, which will have the effect of reducing all the gaps we are currently concerned about, as well as ones we ought be concerned about...
The other problem with such analysis is that in analysing a gap between the average incomes of two definable groups, we then stop being interested in the incomes distributions within these groups or, by extension, within the group of ‘all humans’.
Indeed, such gaps appear in a myriad of ways. Average income is lower for short men, higher for women considered good looking, lower with increasing distance from capital cities and, of course, lower in the global South. Average income is higher for the better educated, lower for the young, and so on.
By looking at averages, we would find the gap changes by the substitution of as few as one person. On a global scale, if the 8 richest men were actually women, then the global gender pay gap would reverse as these 8 would have the income of 50% of the world population. In a company, the pay gap would disappear if one man and one woman at the top earned millions, and the rest earned an equal pittance. Would it really create more justice if a few women at the top meant that an average pay gap did not exist, even though the women at the bottom could still be earning less than the lowest paid man?
There is plenty of political philosophy work that addresses these issues, asking: how much luck or background should impact on livelihood and which reasons should be allowed to be relevant to livelihood; whether policy should prioritise raising the quality of life at the bottom or attempt to promote equality; and how equality of opportunity differs from equality and so on. I recommend starting with Anne Philips’ article from 2006 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2006.00241.x/full) in which she argues that:
‘Majority opinion currently favours something more than the minimal—anti-discrimination—interpretation of equality of opportunity, and looks to a more substantive neutralising of the effects of social background. Yet no government is going to introduce measures that would genuinely neutralise these effects… Equalising opportunities means equalising our chances of the good things in life, but almost by definition, leaves untouched the distribution of rewards between ‘good’ and ‘bad’… They therefore leave untouched the really big questions about inequality.’
While all the gaps between groups described here are problematic, they are all far smaller than the gap between the average of the bottom 50% and the average of the top 50%, whether assessed globally, nationally or, I would assume, within most organisations. And the great thing is, dramatically reducing overall inequality would reduce the gaps between groups, whereas the converse would not be true (see John Hills et al. https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/28344/1/CASEreport60.pdf).
Picture: Cynthia/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)