11 Jan 2015

Women at Work

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but these are my views.)

Women form a disproportionately small percentage of the workforce in India. This is the same problem other countries had a few decades ago. Western countries solved the problem by instituting anti-discrimination laws. It’s gone far beyond laws, and has become a deeply held belief and a matter of political correctness, violating which can get you fired.

That’s one way of solving the problem of women being discriminated against in the workforce. But the problem with this solution is that this rests on an assumption that women and men perform equally well in all positions in society. I’m skeptical about this almost religious belief. Modern society has tens of thousands of highly specialised jobs from database administrator to SRE to marine biologist to regulatory compliance officers and so on. Is it really the case that both men and women are equally suited for each of these tens of thousands of jobs? It’s more likely that men are better suited than women to some jobs, women better suited to others, and there are other jobs for which there’s no difference in ability across genders.

Laws should be made based on objective data, not religious beliefs, however strongly held. Advocates of the law banning gender discrimination should justify their position by data. Absent that data, one should be open-minded and accept that it’s possible that gender makes a difference to some of the tens of thousands of jobs in society.

Laws and practices banning gender discrimination try to force a square peg into a round hole. At the same time, we should recognise the underlying problem these law try to solve. Let’s not confuse the solution with the problem. The problem is inadequate opportunity for women. One solution is anti-discrimination laws. But this is a flawed solution, as I described.

Might we come up with a better solution to fix this problem? I suggest exempting women from income tax, until a certain defined goal is reached, such as women constituting at least 40% of the workforce, perhaps weighted by salary. This will make it more beneficial for a woman to take up a job than a man, and naturally incentivise the woman in the family to work in addition to, or in some cases instead of, the man. It will also provide an incentive to companies who can get the same job done by spending less money from their side, while the employee retains a greater salary.

Importantly, this will result in women taking up more jobs where they are a better fit, rather than uniformly across the economy, without regard to merit. The latter is obviously a bad idea.

The other problem with requiring companies to give equal opportunity to women in hiring is that in some cases, it forces companies to waste resources interviewing and hiring less qualified women when more qualified men exist. Of course, that’s in only some cases. In other cases, there’s no harm caused by this policy, and in yet other cases, the law benefits the company by broadening the talent pool and not rejecting women out of prejudice or long-held, patriarchal beliefs.

But why should the law force any company to consider any candidate they believe may not be the best fit for the job. Is it fair to the individual woman who’s rejected for being a woman? Of course not. But how is that different from any other minimum qualification a company imposes for a job, such as a degree, or a certain number of years of experience at a specific job? Does everyone who have a B.Tech. do well in a certain job, and nobody who doesn’t have a B.Tech? Of course not. The market functions better when there’s less interference from well-meaning but potentially mistaken governments.

Let’s at least try out this proposal of income tax exemption in a state. Or in a major city, like Bangalore or Bombay. If it doesn’t work, we can always get rid of it, and switch to Western-style anti-discrimination laws. But maybe it will work, and work better than anti-discrimination laws at ensuring equal opportunity for women? We’ll never know if we don’t try it. And we can try it at a small scale, as an experiment, if you will, to limit the damage if the policy fails. But not trying a potentially better policy due to closed-mindedness is the worst thing we could do.

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