Women's Equality: Sometimes It is a Zero Sum Game

by Julie Graber | on 11 May 2020

It’s a popular argument - women’s equality is not a zero sum gameMore women in leadership is not a zero sum gameMen v. women is not a zero game

It’s the idea that women can make gains in equality without men having to give anything up. It’s supposed to be a comfort - a way of disarming any objections men might have with the idea of women making gains - whether it’s in leadership, employment, politics, athletics, or pay. We tell men it’s not a zero sum game - that men don't have to lose something for women to gain the equivalent - so they don’t feel threatened by efforts to increase women’s equality.

Except sometimes it is. A zero sum game.

  • If there are more women as members of Congress, there will be fewer male legislators. The total, unless Congress changes it, will always be 535.
  • If there are more women CEOs in the Fortune 500, there will be fewer male CEOs. Not accounting for the occasional co-CEO, the total will always be 500.
  • If there are more women serving as presidents of the 100 largest universities in the US, there will be fewer men leading those institutions. Total: 100.
  • If there are more women directors of Academy Award-nominated films, there will be fewer men calling the shots.
  • If there are more opportunities for women to play sports, there may be fewer opportunities for men.

In any situation where there is a finite pool of positions or resources, if women receive more, men will receive less.

So if you want to look at it that way, sometimes it is a zero sum game.

The other way to look at it however, is not in terms of more or less. It’s only a zero sum game if you believe that men had a right to all the resources, jobs, roles in the past and are now giving something up for women to make gains. It may not seem fair to men now, but actually, it wasn't fair to begin with. The starting point needs to be a more equitable distribution. Everyone gets more. No one gets less. As a colleague noted, equality should be the norm, not the exception.

In game theory, that’s a positive sum game.

In life, it’s a better world for everyone.

Tags:  Gender Equality Clichés