Monday, June 27, 2005

Statistical equality

Employment equity is in the news again.

Two professors from the University of Manitoba, Wayne Simpson and Derek Hum, have generated some stats to show that there is no wage gap (with the exception of Black men) between Canadian-born visible minorities and whites. In consequence, they argue, current employment equity strategies need to be re-thought, targeting visible minority immigants (males in this category make 13% less than their white counterparts) and Black males (a staggering 24% gap), rather than "treating visible minorities as a homogeneous group for public policy purposes."

A demographer at Western, Roderic Beaujot, has weighed in as well. Reacting to the fact that first-generation visible minority Canadians are almost twice as likely to hold a university degree as a third-generation-plus white Canadian, Beaujot concludes: "That, I think, is a very important indicator that Canada's doing very well in terms of not maintaining a continuous disadvantage to those who have visible minority status."

What is wrong with this picture?

To begin with, the stats collected by the Manitoba professors were from the current period. Employment equity legislation has been in place for many years. One would indeed hope that such legislation is working, and, with some exceptions, it appears to be. So what conclusion should we draw from this? Simple, say the profs. We don't need the legislation anymore. Let's concentrate on the people the legislation missed.

Now, that's a bit like arguing that, given the superior wages and benefits now enjoyed in the public sector (I say this hypothetically), public service unions are no longer necessary. Indeed, I recall being told this on numerous occasions in my past life by people who seemed to be entirely serious. Abolish the unions, and somehow those wages and benefits will continue, and even improve, is the implicit claim. Abolish employment equity legislation, and the soaring numbers of women, people with disabilities, aboriginals and visible minorities in the workforce in recent years will continue their meteoric rise. The barriers are gone. The battles have been won.

Such commentators, of course, are either disingenuous or dreaming. All their statistics prove is that employment equity legislation, and unions, are both successful projects. Should attention be paid to those who are left out? Of course. This should be a social priority. But why should that mean getting rid of the very measures that have benefited, and continue to benefit, the others? Have employers grown less rapacious? Has racism disappeared?

It's good to know that visible minority Canadians are so successful at university. But why does Professor Beaujot see this as a triumph over disadvantage? It is far more likely that it reflects precisely that disadvantage--that these young people, in other words, have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to join and survive in the workforce. How many of them end up in jobs for which they are overqualified? What promotional opportunities do they enjoy in comparison with whites? Perhaps investigations in such areas would be of more use than jumping to facile conclusions about equality based on university graduation rates.

Statistics, after all, are just statistics. It's the conclusions one draws from them that need to be looked at with a critical eye. And these equity studies just don't stand up to scrutiny.

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