This week sees a crucial vote in the House of Commons on the question of gay marriage. In many ways it is a logical next step in a society that has previously legislated against discrimination on the basis of age, gender, religious belief and race. In essence, we are a society that believes in the principle of equality.
Intellectually, the concept of equality seems like a good one, but in practice it is problematic to implement. For example, if we accept that a Muslim woman should be permitted to cover her face by wearing a burqa when visiting a bank, why should we insist that a motorcycle courier removes their helmet when entering the same premises? Or why should a turban-wearing Sikh be permitted to ride a motorcycle without a helmet when a non-Sikh is required to wear a helmet by law?
The trouble is that although these laws are passed with good intentions, they are also open to exploitation and ridicule. Take the case of Niko Alm as an example. Alm is an Austrian who in 2011 won the right to have a photograph of him wearing a colander on his head on his driving licence on the grounds that the colander constituted religious dress as he is a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!
In a somewhat more intellectual challenge to the principles of equality, Charles Moore writing in the Daily Telegraph (2/2/13) points out that the principle of equality when applied to gay marriage is fraught with difficulty. For example, there is nothing in the bill that states that same-sex marriages must be between homosexuals. It therefore appears that it would be possible for a straight person to ‘marry’ another straight person simply to take advantage of the tax breaks. Even more surprisingly, as Moore points out, the act does not appear to preclude a parent from ‘marrying’ an offspring to avoid inheritance tax.
In my opinion the problem lies with the quest for equality itself. The fact is that we are not all equal – and thank goodness! We are all individuals, all different and our differences should be celebrated, not subsumed beneath legislation that seeks to hide them.
Take the case of women in the workplace as an example. Despite the fact that it is now more than 37 years since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, women are still statistically under-represented at senior levels in British companies. This under-representation is so persistent that the European Union have even mooted the idea of passing legislation that would set a mandatory quota for women on the boards of public listed companies.
Unfortunately it appears that EU ministers have not noticed that men and women are different. We should therefore not be striving for equality, but instead focus on the value that the differences offer – and these are significant. For example, as Dan Pink points out in his excellent book “A Whole New Mind”, women are proving to be more and more successful in Western businesses as the value proposition swings more and more towards the right-brained attributes that are scientifically proven to be more associated with female rather than male brains. More recent research by Harvard Business School found that women that excel in business often prove to have more highly developed communication skills than their male colleagues. Women are also often more likely to take initiative and make changes to the status quo. In fact, the study showed that firms with women on their boards saw 42% higher sales returns, a 66% higher return on invested capital and a 53% higher return on equity over firms that did not! Click here to view an excellent short video made by ‘Online MBA’ that highlights these points and more besides.
The point is that in a world of differences, equality is a foolish goal. Better to celebrate the differences and recognise the value that a diversity of views, opinions and attributes can provide.