Is it really in the genes?

Monday 10 July 2017

CAROLELast week I came across a Times article by Jenni Russell entitled “We’re wrong to think we choose our friends” (The Times, 6 July).

Jenni suggests that research conducted in the USA shows that when it comes to friendship “it’s our genes issuing orders we can’t resist”. 

Friendship is only one example of a human relationship. People assess others when recruiting for jobs, selecting for university, or appointing ministers. If we are really helpless and at the mercy of biological determinism in making judgements about friends, rather than intelligent beings able to reflect on our own prejudices and tendencies to discriminate, does this mean we will never achieve equality? I am more hopeful than that.

Surely it is our circumstances, rather than genes, that dictate our relationships, our decisions and even our chances of success. It is not genes but social class that determines who will be allowed into the old boys’ networks and given the taps on the shoulder about job opportunities. It is not genes but wealth that too often determines who is able to take unpaid internships and schmooze their bosses at work do’s to get promotions. And it is not genes but a gender bias that means young women are more likely to be passed over for jobs or get stuck in low-paid work with lower promotion prospects.

The Social Mobility Commission recently published a report showing that the UK is becoming increasingly divided into rich and poor and states. Graduate employment for disadvantaged students has “barely improved” over the last two decades. If employers’ judgements about people were based on genes, those from disadvantaged backgrounds but with the right biological make-up would surely be able to dazzle an interview panel and find work – social class would not come into it.

Blaming our judgements about others on genes feels dangerous. It excuses discrimination. It implies that the young women who struggle to find employment only have themselves, their parents and their bodies to blame. It suggests inequality cannot be eradicated.

But we can and should do something about the inequalities that hold people back.  At Young Women’s Trust we are, for example, looking at why women continue to be so under-represented in areas of work such as IT and engineering. We are looking at the barriers young mums face in finding work, including a lack of affordable childcare and a culture that still tells them working when they have children is wrong.

We believe that by working with young women, employers and policymakers we can achieve equality for young women. This requires a change of attitudes and a redrawing of the structures that shut women out. Or is someone really going to suggest “it’s in the genes”?