Friday, November 05, 2010

Family ties


If female talent is undervalued, it should be plentiful and relatively cheap. Firms that hire more women should reap a competitive advantage. And indeed, there is evidence that one type of employer is doing just that.

Jordan Siegel of Harvard Business School reports that foreign multinationals are recruiting large numbers of educated Korean women. In South Korea, lifting the proportion of a firm’s managers who are female by ten percentage points raises its return on assets by one percentage point, Mr Siegel estimates.

South Korea is the ideal environment for gender arbitrage. The workplace may be sexist, but the education system is extremely meritocratic. Lots of brainy female graduates enter the job market each year. In time their careers are eclipsed by those of men of no greater ability. This makes them poachable. Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank, has more women than men in its office in Seoul.

Absent any critique of capitalism, the competing patriarchies in this example can be rendered into "traditional" and "progressive" forms; i.e. one is "sexism," the other "progress." Hiring more women equals "progress" as women assume greater proportions within the workforce; the Economist has made this argument many times.

Global capital investment in women because they are undervalued is regarded as a positive development when contrasted with those established relations which undervalued them in the first place -- but only as long as the capital relation escapes scrutiny. When capital breaks the bonds of local patriarchy, it is breaking a form of local authority. This authority can be socially constituted any number of ways. Capital may "liberate" Chinese girls from their families into the factory while the liberal feminists cheer, but it does so by breaking the family.


Anonymous said...

This is like Mill's utilitarian argument all over again. Women are 'valued' by these companies because they have some inherent utility. The moment utility is taken away, women become furniture again.

Good post :)

JRB said...

Thanks, jaded16.

Everyone, please meet the author of Oi With The Poodles Already! So exciting.

Katie said...

Is the article actually saying that hiring women is good for business because you can pay them less? Or because there is a higher percentage of underpaid women so it's easier to find good talent by looking at a female pool of employees? Oh wow. I can't believe they would come right out and say it.

I have a question about this though:

Clearly substituting an economic version of patriarchy for a family version of patriarchy is no huge cause for celebration. But I wonder about how huge the difference can be for women in terms of very important rights that allow women to take a step forward.

Is it not akin to saying "wage slavery is a type of slavery, therefore therefore we should not be advocating that we shift from a system of outright slavery to a system of wage slavery."

The freedoms may be a matter of degree rather than total liberation, but those degrees are important and can make a world of difference in the lives of individual people.

And how are women supposed to get to a point of liberation if there are not steps along the way that improve conditions enough so that we have more resources to push forward?

I appreciate your writing immensely and I hope I'm not coming across as a naysayer. These are questions I struggle with too about reformist measures. Just exploring ideas as always.

JRB said...


Part of the point I want to make is that different hierarchies have different implications. When two or more converge or compete, all too often what we get are arguments from either side about the inferior implications of the other.

We have to be able to look past the "choice" of one hierarchy or another in order to arrive at a decision to challenge whatever is illegitimate about any of them.

What you are arguing about reform is part of this effort, as is the decision to pursue it in one context vs. another. That is strategic thinking, and people have to apply it to their own circumstances, as you suggest.

The test for each of us, in my view, is whether we can do this even when the implications of a particular hierarchy are things we identify or agree with -- like the secularism of commercial consumerism, for example; authority which, because we endorse it, we may not see the many ways in which it is imposed.

Hattie said...

Some think women are a resource; others think women are people, although the latter is still a minority opinion.

Katie said...

JRB, so, to clarify, are you saying that "reformist" changes need not be counter-revolutionary if they are in the context of a strategy rather than an end in themselves? And that the challenge is to maintain the understanding that the reforms are a step and not the goal even if one likes certain things about them?

I'm interested!

Brian M said...

Katie...I think I like your last question and could almost phrase it as a statement.

JRB said...


I think we should defer to people's preferences when they are the ones affected.

Women should be supported if they want to go into the workforce; and, moreover, they should be supported while they are in the workforce. They should also be supported if they want to stay home, just as they should be supported while they are in the home.

Our preference should always be for the liberatory option present in any situation, and I believe that can be accomplished by pushing "reform" until the outcome conforms to what the affected persons want. Granted, there are times when this necessitates revolution. But one often doesn't know what is "necessary" until one tries.