Column

Sorry, folks, gender differences are real

Barbara Amiel March 15 1999
Column

Sorry, folks, gender differences are real

Barbara Amiel March 15 1999

Sorry, folks, gender differences are real

Barbara Amiel

Column

In 1991, a B.C. logger-firefighter died in a forest fire. Seven others managed to scramble up a 75-m cliff to escape. One couldn’t make it in time and was overcome by smoke and heat. Death by fire is hell. That’s probably why hell itself is depicted as eternal fire; to be burned at the stake was the favourite punishment zealots meted out to those they believe damned. An inquiry was held in British Columbia after the tragedy and provincial fitness standards for firefighters were raised.

Tawney Meiorin was hired as a firefighter by the B.C. government in 1992, just before the new standards were implemented. She took no physical test until 1994 when she failed the running test of 2.5 km in 11 minutes. She lost her job. She went to court, claiming her firing was discriminatory—because men have a higher aerobic capacity than women. Not all men can run 2.5 km in 11 minutes and not all those applying to be firefighters can, but more of them can than women. Her case is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.

I haven’t a clue whether the standards set by the B.C. government are fair. Another B.C. firefighter, Janet Rygnestad-Stahl, says that running was not her own strong point, but after training hard she maintained a fitness level that met the requirements and allowed “me to be a safe, effective and equal member of a three-person firefighting crew.”

According to Rygnestad-Stahl, “there are many males who also continue to fail the new fitness test. Perhaps that means the test is ‘biased’ against people who have a lower level of cardiovascular fitness and strength.”

It’s hard to know whether the dispute between the two female firefighters is simply competitive jealousy, but Rygnestad-Stahl’s comments cut to the quick. She asked for a standard that all firefighters, irrespective of gender, should meet to maintain safety and effectiveness. In her view, the notion of special treatment on the basis of gender constituted “giant steps backwards” for women who had worked hard to gain equality.

Well, yes. Equality means equal treatment and not special privileges. But it is possible that firefighter Meiorin may be caught in a catch-22 situation. Let us assume that the standard of 2.5 km in 11 minutes is unnecessary. It is a rule made by bureaucrats, and if she was fired for not meeting a senseless rule there is no way to challenge it except by recourse to senseless grounds. If bureaucrats today decided that all computer operators must have a hand spread of more than eight inches in order to prevent repetitive strain injury, the only hope for women would be to say that such a large hand size discriminates against the more delicate bone structure of females.

The only way around a silly rule may be a senseless argument, but that means the Supreme Court of Canada may, once more, make a nonsensical judgment. Instead of reforming the rules, we will have yet another precedent confirming the view that when someone fails

The mistake in the B.C. firefighter case was to confuse the nasty notion of parity with the liberal ideal of equality

at something, it is because of discrimination, and that the solution is to make all our institutions blind to gender differences. But gender differences are real. Feminism started out by maintaining there were no differences between men and women, except perhaps for five-per-cent upper-body strength. This was orthodoxy in the early years and anyone who departed from it was a reactionary, hurled into the outer darkness. If you were a woman and protested it, the feminists declared you a non-woman, as with Margaret Thatcher, or a raving lunatic, as with me.

Gradually, as women moved into so-called non-traditional jobs, they discovered men had put up with a lot of things they didn’t like, such as long working hours, tough standards and working conditions. Women were required to make choices and sacrifices. The battle cry then became to change the workplace and its institutions because—wait for it—women were “different” (read “better”). We were wired differently, thought differently, had different moral approaches to life.

Recently, a study of physicians found that in 1997 women made up the majority of medical school graduates in Canada for the first time. This, claimed the Angus Reid study, will create problems for standards of health care as women work about eight fewer hours a week than their male counterparts and have 80 per cent of their productivity rate. They don’t like surgery or emergency medicine. My own view is that under normal circumstances female physicians would change work patterns to fit society’s needs. But if we go on demanding that our institutions change to fit the aspirations of protected groups, who can blame females—or whatever the chosen group may be—for taking advantage of the situation? The key mistake is that we substituted the illiberal and nasty notion of parity for the liberal notion of equality. Parity demands that all groups should be equally represented at the finishing line, hence the B.C. government feels there is something wrong with its standards—not because such standards are irrelevant to firefighting efficiency, but because fewer women pass them than men and there are statistically fewer female firefighters than in the population.

I’m curious to see how we will deal with the apparent numerical overrepresentation of Asians in jobs that require mathematical skills or East Indians and Koreans in small businesses. Will we lower the mathematical requirements for accountants or suspend the issuing of business licences to people of Far Eastern ancestry? Meanwhile, if Canada’s military goes on spending all its time and money on making the army a congenial place for females—where they can be treated with the courtesies appropriate to Southern belles—because numerically women are underrepresented in the armed forces, we had better make sure our foreign policy doesn’t irritate the Americans too much. We can pursue these mad ideas but well need someone sane to protect us from their consequences.