The Problem With ‘Equality Is Profitable’

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A growing contingent of privileged, white guys—the kinds that wear suits and have MBAs—has been standing on various high-profile soapboxes and arguing that gender and racial equality are good for business. You would think that I, a feminist and a pragmatist, would be thrilled to see arguments about the benefits of diversity popping up in the most unlikely of places, out of the most unlikely of mouths. But such discussions are intrinsically flawed.

At the PopTech! conference last fall, tech diplomacy wunderkind Alec Ross extolled the virtues of sharing power with women (he worked for Hillary Clinton, so he knows a thing or two about powerful women). John Gerzema, a business consultant, has been everywhere evangelizing about what he calls the “Athena Doctrine”—that “feminine values are ascending in business and politics.” Those who don’t get hip to these ascendant values, Gerzema argues, will get left behind.

And just this weekend, psychologist Adam Grant, along with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, published another in their series on women at work in which they wrote:

To make gender parity a reality, we need to change the way we advocate for it. The usual focus is on fairness: To achieve justice, we need to give women equal opportunities. We need to go further and articulate why equality is not just the right thing to do for women but the desirable thing for us all.

This line of argument—that it’s profitable and inevitable to diversify—proliferated in the wake of the economic downturn. Pundits started looking around for whom to blame. Turns out most of the people with their fingers on the proverbial buttons in 2007 were white dudes. Who could forget New York Times columnist Nick Kristof asking how things might have been different if it had been Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers? A thousand women’s studies professors swooned over their chai teas that morning.

I, too, appreciated the sentiment and gave him props for the turn of phrase. And I can’t helping liking Gerzema and Grant. They seem genuine and they have so much power to serve as bridge-builders between the tweeting, protesting, Melissa Harris-Perry-watching badasses shaping feminist movements and the guys (and women, let’s be real) who live in the “master’s house.” A lot of my own energy, in fact, is spent as the mediator between people with money and/or institutional power, and people with great ideas and people power, so I empathize with the difficulty of the task.

And let’s be wise students of history here: Many a grand movement has had a preposterously practical tipping point. Slavery began to unravel when a union commander decided not to send a trio of fugitive slaves back to their confederate owners because they were offering him military intelligence. He wasn’t an abolitionist, concerned with the state of his own soul if he upheld the barbarity of slavery; he was a savvy warmonger.

Still, I can’t help feeling like Audre Lorde is sitting next to me, learning over and whispering something ominous in my ear, every time one of these unlikely ambassadors shows up at a conference spitting feminist messages. She’s whispering about a forgotten, simple word: justice.

I don’t mean the kind of justice doled out in courts of law, which have themselves been shaped in unjust societies and times. I’m talking about that eternal, messy pursuit of that which feels like a decent reflection of our common humanity. The stuff of philosophy and theology, not economics. The stuff of recognition—one person looking at another and seeing worth, not wrought from calculus, but from the simple fact of existence. We deserve dignity, not because we are women or men or black or white, but because we are here and have needs and are full of human potential.

None of that seems to have an audience in this surge of unlikely messengers and their utilitarian equality. These modern-day descendents of Jeremy Benthem and John Stuart Mill are in favor of diversity and equality in boardrooms and bedrooms and on Capitol Hill because they think it will be profitable and peaceful for power to be spread around. They’re in great philosophic company—many have argued that our greatest moral responsibility isn’t to a squishy notion of humans being made of the same stardust and, therefore, deserving of fairness, but the measurable stuff of “maximum utility”: What kind of treatment benefits the most people most effectively?

Ironically, while these guys are busting the status quo with their message, the framing actually adheres with traditional gender roles. The guys are making the logical (it’s good for business) not emotional (it feels right) argument. Perhaps they believe this makes them more effective evangelists, but it also keeps them in very safe territory. In other words, men are still from Mars and women are still from Venus and we should just increase our interplanetary travel for the good of the galaxy.

These utilitarian allies even think equality will be sexier. One of the most oft-repeated studies in utilitarian screeds like these is the one about what Grant and Sandberg call “choreplay”—that women will have more sex with men if they will just do a little bit of laundry. Studies prove it! Deign to do some domestic drudgery and you might get a blow job as a prize!

As much as I want more equality, (like, yesterday,) I can’t abide by it being achieved based on a transactional promise of blow jobs. Or bigger profit margins. Or even less war.

Call me cheesy (trust me, it wouldn’t be the first time), but I want people to believe that equality and diversity are necessary, not just because they’ll directly benefit, but because their conscience demands it. Women should have equal rights because sex shouldn’t determine dignity. People of color should be given the same opportunities for quality education and fulfilling work as white people because it’s ethical, doubly so in a country built on slavery. The absence of equality is spiritually repugnant, not just a missed opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong: The pragmatic argument is effective and necessary. I don’t mind that it’s out there, piquing the interest of CEOs named John, but I don’t want it to become the only argument that people are exposed to. The “warriors of justice,” as Obama called civil rights leaders at Selma’s 50th anniversary, didn’t sit at whites-only lunch counters with signs that said, “Let Blacks eat breakfast here. You’ll make more money.” They made the moral argument. They put their own bodies on the line and demanded discomfort from those whose consciousness was still evolving.

Besides, utilitarian arguments have often been made to justify reprehensible moral action. The death penalty, some claim, is right because it saves prison money and deters criminal behavior (in fact, it doesn’t, but even the utilitarians don’t always get the facts right). Child labor was thought to be necessary for the economy to thrive, and therefore, continued until the turn of the century when people finally came to terms with the fact that more profit wasn’t as important as a generation of children’s wellbeing. We should be weary of our most pragmatic arguments; they have sometimes gotten us into sketchy moral territory.

I know there’s a danger here. Too often, progressive movements, especially feminism, talk a huge game about wanting to preach beyond the choir only to shoot down those who haven’t learned all the right lyrics to all the right songs the second they bravely open their mouths. I don’t want these guys to feel shut down or even unappreciated, but I do want them to balance their strategic use of studies about bottom lines and blow jobs with moral appeals. Otherwise, women and people of color are at risk of being used as another stepping stone for more white, male flourishing, instead of partners in the collective betterment.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. She is hard at work writing a new book and raising a new human in Oakland.

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