Why Is Sexism Okay in Development Work? Reconsidering the 'Women are Better' Dialogue.

I'm a woman, so I can't pretend to know how men feel when their sex is disparaged, but I know if the talk from many NGOs and social businesses about males was said about females, I'd be annoyed.
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"We don't hire men. They are too lazy."

I overheard this from a man on a panel today who was talking about his work in emerging markets. Imagine he had said, "We don't hire women. They are too lazy." People would have been up in arms, but on this panel, most people barely batted an eye when he blatantly said he was discriminating against 50 percent of the population. In fact, others went on to say that they too don't hire men for their businesses in developing areas.

I'm a woman, so I can't pretend to know how men feel when their sex is disparaged, but I know if the talk from many NGOs and social businesses about males was said about females, I'd be annoyed.

I am writing from the Emerge Conference at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, a conference organized by the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship. It is one of my favorite events of the year: none of the pomp and circumstance of some other social enterprise events, many top notch entrepreneurial leaders from around the world and a REALLY engaged audience of professionals, students and global social impact leaders.

So much of what I heard at this weekend's conference was inspiring, positive and forward-thinking, but there were a few times I got a pang of confusion around a muddled message that came through from a handful of entrepreneurs:

"Men are not trustworthy."

A number of businesses dealing with rural distribution or other training programs spoke about how they "only hire women sales people" or stated that "When you hire men, they are more selfish and lazy."

How do you MEN feel about these statements?

Some of the companies were speaking from past experience: "When we hired men for sales, we got a lower return, as most of them didn't work as hard." They are speaking from proven results, in the same way you could say, "Asian Americans perform higher on exams," if using data in American states where that has proven true, or, "African Americans are more likely to end up in jail than their white counterparts." But I think people would be up in arms if you then said, "So therefore, our company only hires Asians, as they are smarter, and does not hire African American men, as they are more likely to get arrested."

Those "facts," based on retroactive data might be true statements of past experience, but stating them as undeniable facts into the future can create self-fulfilling prophecies, biases that lead to further skewed impressions and perhaps self-identification issues among the groups themselves. I am concerned that so many companies working in developing countries now say: "We now only hire women," and even more concerned that we're all ok with this. This same cohort of social justice workers fight against sexism at home, yet some seem to promote it abroad. Why the discrepancy?

We all know that just because some men have been lazier than women in sales, there are certainly some non-lazy men, and some very lazy women. Do these types of "I don't hire men" statements go too far in our fight to promote the employment of women? Or does our previous experience hiring some lazy men give us the right to stop hiring men all together? Wouldn't it be better to hire the most capable people, rather than discriminate against a whole sex? We certainly wouldn't stand for it in our dialogue at home, so is our belittlement of foreign men from poor backgrounds yet another way to make it seem like "we" are better than "them"?

Many years ago, when I lived in Japan, I worked in a job where the employee before me had been from Kansas, and apparently he hadn't done a good job in the role. The community then said they would no longer higher anyone from Kansas, which I found to be an amusing solution to their problem. Let's hope these social entrepreneurs who claim to be aiming to make the world a more fair and just society don't feel justified in making similar discriminating claims against 50 percent of the population. And let's call sexism, sexism, even when it's not against women.