What Is Discrimination?

February 7th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Discrimination is a word that is used extensively in discussions about gender issues and gender inequality. However, the word discrimination is often used indiscriminately these days, so there is a real need to reclaim the correct definition of the word.

How is discrimination defined? Discrimination simply means judging someone by their race, gender, religion, sexuality, age, etc – instead of judging them for their competence. If you apply for a job where you are the most qualified candidate, but you do not get the job because you are gay, then you are being discriminated against. This kind of discrimination, which we can call authentic discrimination, is something that has no place in an evolved society and legislation should make sure that this kind of action is illegal.

Nowadays we sometimes hear the claim that women are being discriminated against because they don’t have as many positions of power in the public sphere as men do. As we all know, women are generally underrepresented in corporate management, political positions and leadership positions in general. However, we cannot automatically draw the conclusion that women are being discriminated against simply because there are more men in these domains! Doing so represents an incorrect use of the word discrimination.

If we want to determine whether women are being discriminated against, we need to investigate how the positions we’re interested in were filled. Was the most competent and suitable candidate for the job hired? If this is the case, then there has been no discrimination, period. We can have 70 percent men in a certain workplace, or 80 percent women in another workplace, without having discriminated against either gender. As long as the most competent and suitable people are being hired, we’re rewarding excellence and dedication, and those factors are gender neutral.

In many countries, feminist lobbying is influencing policy makers to support affirmative action for women. One example is Norway, where recent legislation has enforced that 40 percent of board members in corporations should be women. Spain has passed a similar law, forcing companies with more than 250 employees to appoint women to 40 percent of board seats within six years. While these kinds of actions may be seen as efforts to promote gender equality, they are actually a form of discrimination.

If a company that needs to recruit a new board member already has 60 percent men on the board, it will have no choice but to hire a woman, regardless of whether it’s a woman who’s the most qualified candidate. This means that the laws that are now in place in Norway and Spain, and that may spread elsewhere, can actually discriminate against men. Furthermore, the women on those boards will not know whether they got the job because of their qualifications or because the company simply needed another woman to avoid breaking the law. If I were a woman I’d detest being in that situation, I would much prefer knowing that I got the job (or not) based on my qualifications alone.

The rationale for having affirmative action for women is the claim that women have a hard time being taken seriously in competitive careers. Regardless of whether this claim is true or not in a certain country at a certain point in time, the answer is not affirmative action. The solution to a gender problem can never be to make discrimination legal, and affirmative action means legalizing a subtle form of discrimination. If stereotypes are hindering women from succeeding in the workplace, or if stereotypes are preventing men from developing close connections to their children, then the solution is to transcend those stereotypes, and promote a worldview where each individual is allowed to make his or her own choices, regardless of gender.

We need to create a society where every child and every person is given the opportunity to pursue the career or family life of his or her dreams. This means transcending stereotypes that expect every man to be a certain way, and every woman to be a certain way. But it does not mean making discrimination legal, however alluring that option might seem.

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9 Responses to “What Is Discrimination?”

  1. Jane McGillivray Says:

    So the problem is that given our recent history, discrimination is ALREADY embedded into many systems, by the male dominated hierarchy that presides. How does this hierarchy get penetrated, if the people allowed in are chosen by the people already in power? There is a circular problem here. The ‘old boys club’ is not called the old boys club for nothing. They have been in control of much of what is happening, including chosing who is allowed to be in control. This is the system that is presently needing deconstruction. If there are no(few) women’s voices in the upper eschalons of power, then by default this perspective is not represented, and the entire situation is diminished. Something is lost, and what is lost is not even noticed to have been lost, because it was never acknowledged in the first place.
    We are in times of transition, and in this time of transition, affirmative action makes a lot of sense to me, even if it is not always ‘fair’ or ‘ideal’. The scales need to be balances, so to speak, before they can be balanced. It is an interesting conundrum.

  2. Pelle Billing Says:


    In the recent US presidential elections, there was a woman who made a serious run for the presidency, and another woman who could have been elected vice-president. In developed countries we find women at every level of society, whether we’re talking about politics, corporations, medicine, etc. Girls are doing better in schools than boys (from Sweden, to the UK, to the US), and women dominate colleges and universities.

    If there is an “old boys’ club” they’re sure doing a bad job at keeping women in the homes ;)

    To stay competitive, companies cannot hire a person simply because he is male. If a company passes over highly qualified women, those women will be picked up by another company that will thereby gain a competitive advantage. So the very forces of a capitalist market economy actively work against any kind of discrimination.

    What’s important though is that men and women get the same opportunities to succeed and pursue the career they want. And as I wrote above there are no indications that girls are being shortchanged, on the contrary, girls are doing better than boys in the entire educational system.

    What’s also relevant to note is that the public sphere was built by men, and if one accepts that there are certain types of neurohormonal difference between the sexes (eg. difference in brain structure and function), then the public sphere may be constructed in a way which is congruent with a male type of thinking. So how do we incorporate female values and female ways of thinking in the public sphere? I think it’s already happening, due to all the new kinds of jobs that arise in an informational society, and due to men and women alike demanding more humane working conditions and new ways of reaching goals.

  3. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Sweden also have 2 political partys (V and MP) who holds the view that in boards there must be atleast 50% women, and a majority of women is also OK, but not a majority of men. This is discrimination ofcourse, but discrimination against men today is not really regarded as discrimination, but as “battling the Patriarchy”.


    First of all, to sanction disrimination, for any reason, is not morally right. Especially for people and politcal doctrines that allegedly is pro-equality.

    Secondly, to sanction discrimination opens up for the view that discrimination is OK under certain circumstances. Its not. Its never OK.

    The patriarchy-theory is a Theory, controversial at that. and far from proven true. If we where to make legislation to discriminate based on a theory, at least that theory must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. The Patriachial theory is not. All the indices that this theory uses to create the idea of a Patriarchy, can be, and have been, explained in alternate ways. Often more believable than a great male conspiracy at that. Beyond doubt. Its nowhere near that status, and probably never will. Because its simply not true.

    But all that aside; I truly believe affirmative action is harmful to equality. Especially when its followed by arguments like yours above, women have something special to contribute. What is this specific “femaleness” I wonder? This female perspective? Its gender. Nothing more, nothing less, and affirmative action is just another way to strengthen the genderrolls. And to my mind equality is about the opposite, getting rid of genderrolls and free humanity from this plague of falsly percieved dichotomy.

    Furthermore, whenever affirmative action is followed by ideas like, “well female police/firemen have a higher social competence/softer apporach etc”, what really happens it that those rolls are filled, and so the men is expected to fill the vacant rolls instead, ie the macho-roll. Effectively punishing non-macho men, discriminating them since females, trough affirmative action, fills their niche. This is probably not the way to go if we want equality.

    On the contrary, the ONLY thing that should be factored in when applying for jobs is relevant skills. Affirmative action creates a divide between male and female when what we really need is a merging of those two roles.

  4. Paddan Says:

    “And to my mind equality is about the opposite, getting rid of genderrolls and free humanity from this plague of falsly percieved dichotomy.”

    It’s even hard to distinguish between what is the biological/sex or the cultural/gender. Where does the one begin and the other end? I’m not saying that everything is just a “social construction” (I’m not even sure, to be honest, what that would mean, it all depends on how you define “culture” and “biology” and where the line is drawn) or that everything is determined by biology. But one thing seems clear; people develop and their roles in society change. Now, how much they change and how they change we don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not 100% confident we’ll get rid of the genderroles, but perhaps we’ll just define them completely different or use another word entirely. Dichotomies are problematic, sometimes outright nasty, but sometimes necessary.

    Nothing is certain, except change I guess.

    Happy Valentines day! :-)

  5. Bj0rnborg Says:


    I do believe though, no matter how big influence our biology have on our bahoviour, that to be civilized means that we can let our lives be dictated by higher ideals than our reptile brain. Whatever biological influences we have, we can overcome in order to live our lives the way we WANT, not beeing forced to.

  6. Paddan Says:

    “we can let our lives be dictated by higher ideals than our reptile brain”

    I agree, and it’s probably necessary if we are to survive I believe, BUT, I’m not sure how much of it depends on what we WANT versus what “evolution” (I mean this in the broadest sence, biological and cultural if you wish) “wants”.

    But that’s more the debate about free will vs. determinism. Agency vs. structure etc. Depends on your perspective perhaps. But as I said, I really agree with you that the reptilian brain is not the sole influence. And too many times we read about men, who often fight feminism, who uses the biology argument to “prove” their point; “it’s okay for men to stare at women, we’re just born that way.”

  7. Pelle Billing Says:

    I think it’s fine to acknowledge biological differences between the sexes (on a group level) as long as we don’t use those differences as an excuse to have laws that are discriminatory, or use the biological differences as an excuse to uphold stereotypes.

    If we have laws that are gender neutral, and a culture that allows individuals to make the choices they want (regarding work, family, etc), then we’ll see what emerges. Maybe men and women will still make different choices, but then it will be from a much more conscious place.

    At the end of the day we cannot tell people what to do, even if their choices go against our ideology. That’s one of the major mistakes of feminism, IMO.

  8. Defining Gender Equality Says:

    [...] As long as competence determines who gets a job, we may have 80% women in a certain workplace or 70% men, without any discrimination occurring. Read more about discrimination in this dedicated post. [...]

  9. ssebugala peter Says:

    thank you very much i got what i was looking for about gender equity.