The world has been designed fitfully, but approximately, by wealthy, white men. Finding situations where it seems rational to discriminate against women is common, but remember that the system’s rigged. There are lots of ways of making the world a better place that are suppressed.
Institutions refer to the explicit rules of life (what time do you start work?) to the implicit (normal people start work at 9). These rules have changed and evolved over time, but they started off very much in favour of the people who wrote them.
A lot of the time these implicit rules go unquestioned, either because you don’t think to or do and don’t want to look weird, they persevere. But because these rules were set fitfully, but approximately, by wealthy, white men this unspoken toleration means that the world continues to favour those who set the rules.
How about an example to illustrate? A menstrual explanation of the gender pay gap I came across last week, although the paper dates from 2006.
Tim finds a rational reason for the gender pay gap: periods. It’s actually quite a cute study he links to, as far as study design goes. The authors discover that women take slightly more sick days than men, they look for correlations and find a correlation at 28 days that doesn’t exist for men.
Women end up being paid less because the extra sick days make them look bad. They’re not actually worse at their jobs and the sick days are unavoidable, but managers still end up using sick days as a partial proxy for performance and this damages women’s pay. 
This accounts for about 18% of the observed gender pay gap. Not huge, but not chopped liver. I’ve never had period pains, and I don’t plan to, because they sound fucking awful. That they’re costing women money seems to me to be taking the piss. Tim declares this is just “rational discrimination.” I’ll leave that hanging there for my lady readers to take up with him personally.
I would have thought the problem here was obvious. Why are women forced to work when they cannot? Why are they personally penalised for a system designed to ensure they fail? Seems like the system is to blame. Regular days off and holiday have been designed for people who do not regularly shed their uterine lining.
Of course, the system regulating when we don’t work is really complex and involves every firm in the world, every system of statutory time off, and all employment contracts. That’s the problem with institutions and the implicit rules of life, they’re kinda everywhere.
One option would be to follow the “economist’s answer” and say that is “rational discrimination” which we cannot do anything about. I don’t like that. Plus that’s the wrong reaction on it’s own terms. The actual economist’s answer, without the scare quotes, has two parts.
- This is bad and we can leave this distortion in place and tax and transfer a small payment to all women to make up for it. This makes it as if the problem doesn’t exist.
- This is bad but people will start firms hiring women with heavy periods on flexible contracts and make a killing as these women are currently underutilised. MoonCupGemini or something. This will eventually eliminate the problem.
One other option is to smash patriarchal capitalism. Which sounds extreme…probably a post for another time.
More likely to win widespread agreement would be to subtly alter the unwritten rules of society to take into account the requirements of half the population. This will involve changing working practices slightly but should cause less disruption than the status quo as time off becomes routine and planned, not ad hoc and chaotic.
Men are born, hit puberty and get taller and hairier. It’s kinda pathetic that a lot of the institutions of the world are still designed with that individual in mind. There’s nothing rational about the system, other than it being designed for the powerful and suiting the powerful. It’s just another example of one of the more subtle sexist structures of society.
 Here’s the link and abstract:
In most Western countries illness-related absenteeism is higher among female workers than among male workers. Using the personnel dataset of a large Italian bank, we show that the probability of an absence due to illness increases for females, relative to males, approximately 28 days after a previous illness. This difference disappears for workers age 45 or older. We interpret this as evidence that the menstrual cycle raises female absenteeism. Absences with a 28-day cycle explain a significant fraction of the male-female absenteeism gap. To investigate the effect of absenteeism on earnings, we use a simple signaling model in which employers cannot directly observe workers’ productivity, and therefore use observable characteristics – including absenteeism – to set wages. Since men are absent from work because of health and shirking reasons, while women face an additional exogenous source of health shocks due to menstruation, the signal extraction based on absenteeism is more informative about shirking for males than for females. Consistent with the predictions of the model, we find that the relationship between earnings and absenteeism is more negative for males than for females. Furthermore, this difference declines with seniority, as employers learn more about their workers’ true productivity. Finally, we calculate the earnings cost for women associated with menstruation. We find that higher absenteeism induced by the 28-day cycle explains 11.8 percent of the earnings gender differential.