Different Choices Have Different Outcomes: Feminism Can't Change That

05/04/2012 17:04 BST | Updated 04/06/2012 10:12 BST

Feminism has long been conflated with self-indulgent, over-entitled melancholy, but to me the difference is clear.

The editor of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, recently said that

"If you take time out and have children, it does damage your [career] trajectory in some way. I know it shouldn't, I know there should be a way round it, but I think it's really hard."

"I know it shouldn't".

Actually, it should, and it does. How could it not?

Furthering a career is a modern luxury. It's not a human right.

Raising a family should be compatible with having a job, otherwise how else could single parents survive? But Shulman's logic, and that of many that think like her, is flawed. She expects mothers to be treated differently to other folk who take long career breaks for non-family reasons (men or women who take extended breaks go travelling, for example).

This isn't feminism. This is selfish. It expects the world to be unnaturally fair beyond what most people would consider reasonable.

In an article earlier this week that also featured Shulman, The Guardian's Tayna Gold writes that "For women in work these are the worst of times". Times are indeed hard, for everyone. I get the impression Gold also has a flawed idea of what equality might look like.

Some believe that a world devoid of sexism would result in perfect equilibrium: 50% women and 50% men in all jobs, in all industries, in all circumstances. Other people believe that, if legislative and social barriers were removed, you would still see differences in men and women's lives due to other socio-economic factors. Race, class, location, intelligence, family life, age, health, etc.

Combine all these factors together and you get an impression of someone's level of social and financial freedom, or privilege. It's the difference between worrying about your career trajectory and worrying about being able to find £4.50 to catch the train to a job interview. Or the difference between shopping at Waitrose and living off a diet of Netto's multipack crisps (and yeah, I've done all these things).

It's this same privilege that allows people to study gender at university. Because although these courses may have merit, hardly anyone would study them if their life depended on finding graduate work. Are women's studies courses, by surrounding students with genuine stories of oppression, creating an atmosphere of victimhood and entitlement?

But professors aren't deliberately and maliciously brainwashing their students. This is the proven way our brain processes social data. It can be used to explain why intelligent people lose perspective when surrounded by stories of discrimination against a particular social group outside of university too.

"Place a woman behind almost every vacuum cleaner being pushed around a carpet and, by Jove, associative memory will pick up the pattern ... Unlike explicitly held knowledge, where you can be reflective and picky about what you believe, associative memory seems to be fairly indiscriminate in what it takes on board ... What this means is that if you are a liberal, politically correct sort of person, then chances are you won't very much like your implicit mind's attitudes."
From Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.

This accidental emphasis on women as victims and men as the oppressors can result in some strange mental gymnastics - the idea that a pay gap automatically implies a sexist conspiracy, or the notion that mothers should be able to have a career to rival that of a childless person. According to them, the 50-50 utopia vision is the most compelling, and socially engineering our world to create it with mechanisms like positive discrimination is the way forward.

But equality of opportunity hardly ever creates equality of results, because even with gender conditioning out of the picture you can't take into account people's random preferences. So why try to fix the results to appear equal?

This emphasis on superficial top-down politics also comes at the cost of ignoring the deeper-rooted causes that hold women from getting anywhere near a boardroom or hardhat in the first place. Here's a hint: it's something to do with privilege and social conditioning. And these affect men too.

Another unfortunate symptom of harbouring this short-sighted version of the world is that the male voice is often shut out. Remarks from men who jump into every feminist debate are annoying if phrased insensitively or are genuinely trolling, but automatic distrust of the male experience is dangerous. Framing sexism in a vacuum where men's issues don't exist means we lose the perspective we so badly need to make discussions about gender more robust.

And when we do look at men's issues a clear picture emerges: gender does influence our lives but it is also one of many, many factors we need to tackle in parallel.

So yes, it would be nice if having a family did not negatively impact your career, it would also be nice if taking a few years out to catch up on sleep wouldn't hurt either.

Whilst we attempt to forge a reasonable level of fairness in the world through equal human rights and opportunities for both genders, asking businesses to treat mothers differently to other career breakers because of a choice made of free will should not be within feminism's remit.