The economic costs of racism, sexism and discrimination against people with disabilities





Kia ora koutou. Talofa lava. Malo e lelei.


On 11 November this year, something happened in Aotearoa/New Zealand that’s never happened anywhere else in the world. Multiple female MPs from the Green and Labour parties stood up in Parliament and revealed that they had been sexually abused. Instead of shock at the revelations, acknowledgement of the women’s courage and immediate commitments to end sexual abuse, our Parliament made no acknowledgement of the women and carried on with business as usual.


In 2009,  Russian woman Anna Klevets applied to be an assistant driver in the St Petersburg subway. She was turned down because of a law in Russia banning woman from operating dangerous heavy equipment. Anna took her fight for the job all the way to the Russian Supreme Court but it ruled that she could not have the job because she was a woman. Russian law bans women from 456 types of jobs, including oil drilling and stallion breeding.


And in Delhi in December 2012, student Jyoti Singh was gang-raped and murdered, for being out after dark with a man who was not related to her.


What these three events have in common is discrimination against women. The Speaker of our Parliament, other MPs and the public in general think sexual abuse is such a normal part of female existence that it was not even worth acknowledging the women MPs’ disclosure.


Discrimination against women, racism and discrimination against people with disabilities exist in every country. The McKinsey Global Institute calculated that, if women participated equally in the global economy, it would grow by US$ 28 trillion. That’s a 26 per cent increase and almost equivalent to the combined GDPs of the United States and China.  So what that means is: discriminating against women is costing the world economically almost as much as the Chinese and American economies combined.


Even making incremental progress on women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global growth.


At the moment, 155 of 173 countries have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities. And in 100 economies, women face gender-based job restrictions.


If we look at people with disabilities: around 14 per cent of the world’s population – or one billion people – have a disability. People with disabilities commonly suffer from discrimination on multiple fronts – their disabilities, their gender if they’re female, and possibly race as well. 80 per cent of people with disabilities live in developing countries and mortality for children with disabilities can be as high as 80 per cent. Unemployment for people with disabilities is up to 80 per cent in some countries. One United States study found only 35 per cent of people with disabilities were working, compared with 78 per cent for those without. In India, only 100,000 of an estimated 70 million people with disabilities have obtained jobs.


And turning to racism: it’s estimated to cost the United States economy $2 trillion a year. Race, class, and residential segregation combine to lock black and Hispanic people out of education and jobs. That’s bad for the individuals affected, and also acts as a huge drag on the American economy.


The one thing we could do that would make the most difference to the New Zealand economy – and to the world economy - would be to end discrimination.


Neoliberalism relies on an economy that is exclusive, hierarchical and short-term. Billions of people try to survive on very low incomes while a very few at the top keep billions of dollars for themselves. People on low incomes are sold the myth of aspiration : that if they work hard they can move from being at the bottom to being at the top.


We’ve had this hierarchical view of the world since Aristotle. He presented a picture of the world with a male, white, able-bodied, heterosexual person at the top. Everyone else was ranked below – women, people of different ethnicity, people with disabilities. And then even further down are animals. Because you’re at the top of the hierarchy, you are superior, and those beneath you are inferior. So it’s ok for you to exploit them for your benefit, and to treat them badly. And that thinking also involves taking a very short-term approach: focusing on how you, personally, can accumulate as much wealth as possible, right now, and ignoring the long-term damage to the environment your activity is causing.  That’s the thinking that allows – or encourages – us to do nothing about climate change.


If you’ve seen Naomi Klein’s film This Changes Everything: it’s entirely anthropocentric. She says at the start of the film that she doesn’t care about polar bears.  She says at the end she still doesn’t care about polar bears. She doesn’t seem to understand that humans are dependent on other species. For example, bee populations are under severe threat worldwide and we have no idea how humans would survive without bees to pollinate.


In the past, we’ve liked to think New Zealand was an egalitarian society and people pretty much had equality of opportunity. That’s implicit in the Prime Minister’s story of growing up in a state house, becoming a multi-millionaire and then becoming Prime Minister. It perfectly fits the neoliberal focus on the “success” of the individual few, rather than the well-being of the community as a whole.


It’s exactly that sort of mythology we need to get away from.


If we moved to a non-discriminating, non-hierarchical and long-term focused Aotearoa, our economy would soar, and our citizens would have much better lives.


Aotearoa has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world. We also ranked top among OECD countries in a 2011 report on rates of sexual violence. Women in New Zealand earn 14 per cent less an hour than men, and the gap for Maori and Pasifika women is even larger.


We’re all aware of the effects of colonisation on Maori, and the disadvantage statistics in health, education, life expectancy and other measures.


How do we change all this  ?


We need to stop talking about “merit.” The world has never, ever operated on the basis of merit. Men have been getting jobs and positions for thousands of years because they’re men,  not because of merit. Women have been locked out by law, custom and outright physical violence. Remember, it was only three years ago in 2012 that Malala Yousafzi was shot in the head because she advocated education for girls.   How can we accept a world where girls’ right to education is even questioned ?


“Merit” is used by white men to perpetuate their privilege and to continue to lock out non-pakeha, women, and people with disabilities. Whenever there is any suggestion of action to end discrimination, men shout “merit.”


But “merit” is not an objective measure. It’s utterly subjective. I was at a seminar once where a male partner in a law firm talked about how women could become partners. He mentioned qualifications, hard work etc. But then he said there also needed to be “chemistry.” And all around me, young female lawyers who wanted to become partners wrote down “chemistry” and wondered how they could get “chemistry.” But what that partner was actually doing was explaining exactly how his firm discriminates.


What “chemistry” really means is people you feel comfortable with, people like you. And for the white male partners, that’s not women or Maori.


When it was suggested in 2013 that Labour might have quotas to raise our shocking level of under-representation of women in Parliament – it’s been around 30 to 33 per cent for two decades – men said it wouldn’t be fair to men. But how is it fair that women have been locked out of positions for thousands of years by law, custom and outright physical violence ?


In Canada, Justin Trudeau announced a Cabinet of 50 per cent women and with ethnic diversity. And when asked why, he said “Because it’s 2015.”


Around the world, more than a hundred countries have forms of quotas or other steps to increase women’s participation in politics. Women currently occupy only 19 per cent of parliamentary seats around the world.


The Greens announced in October a commitment to an even gender split in Cabinet as a way of setting an example for workplaces. And sure enough, the Prime Minister and others immediately criticised this and trumpeted  -  “merit”  – even though we all know there never has been merit. Although research shows that companies with women board members perform better, it’s still more important for men to hold on to their power and continue to lock women out. So male power trumps economic returns for the economy as a whole.

The head of Chartered Accountants New Zealand , Kirsten Patterson, joined in the criticism of the Greens’ announcement, saying “You can’t say you’ve reached equality if you’ve had to enforce a system for equality to occur.”  Neither she nor John Key explained how equality would be achieved.


Another mechanism for shutting down anti-discrimination moves and upholding the status quo is use of the term “identity politics.” It’s employed by political scientists and commentators to trivialise discrimination. Most commonly, we’re told that identity politics are of concern to a minority, and are a distraction from the “real” political issues of the economy, jobs, and tax rates.


That’s rubbish. Women earning an average hourly rate 14 per cent less than men in Aotearoa in 2015 is a core economic concern. But in election campaigns we never talk about the gender pay gap, domestic violence or sexual violence. We stick to the important issues – defined by the most privileged men in our society –  the economy, interest rates etc.


The term “political correctness” is used in the same way to try and stop verbal expressions of support for or moves to end discrimination.


We’re also told that issues about violence against women and pay equity are “women’s issues.” That’s not true. Violence against women is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men. That makes it a male issue.


So, if men are interested in improving our economy, it’s time for men to step up and act to end this, and other forms of, discrimination. Thank you.



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