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Paying the price of equality

Have you heard the one about the woman driver forced to pay higher insurance?

It’s not funny; but it is significant.

For while the recent EU ruling that forces car insurers to ignore sex when setting premiums might seem a like a small step in women’s long march towards equality it does challenge an insidious form of stereotyping

Are all women safer drivers than all men? No, of course not. Do more young men than young women have car accidents? Well, according to UK car insurers, they do.  But the real question is why did insurance companies ever think the sex of a driver was directly relevant to their ability to drive a car? As has been pointed out, attempts to price insurance according to race would have rightly been heavily criticized. So why, for so long, has it been acceptable to use the sex of the driver as grounds for separate pricing?

The desire to categorize by sex is probably due to an on-going sexism within our culture. Some people drive well and some drive badly – but why do we look for an explanation for this in sex? Because we are surrounded by gender stereotypes.  The idea that women are ‘safer’ or ‘more considerate’ drivers than men fits the stereotypes we see everywhere.  Women are – of course – ‘more caring’ than men; wouldn’t drive dangerously because they are ‘naturally’ nurturing. That’s why we expect women to be the primary care-givers to children – and need the category of ‘stay at home dad’ when this isn’t the case. That’s why we expect women to make up the majority of those employed in the ‘caring’ professions such as nursing; and need the descriptive ‘male nurse’ for the minority.

As I argue in my new book Autonomy and Identity: The Politics of Who We Are these stereotypes benefit neither men nor women. For, stereotyping restricts our ability to define ourselves. An individual’s identity is important because it should be an expression of who that person is but stereotypes prevent some people being able to do this, gender stereotypes in particular. Stereotyping is a subtle but worryingly effective way of one group expressing power over another. If we cannot define ourselves because we are forced into rigid categories by such stereotypes then we lack a very important part of our autonomy. The effect of this is that we see people not as who they really are but as an inherently unequal society chooses to define them. Surely in the twenty-first century we can start to move away from viewing people through burdensome gender stereotypes?

So, now women will be worse off when it comes to car insurance; but better off when it comes to annuity payments. But perhaps we will all be a little better off, because in one small area of life we can no longer explain people’s actions with reference to their sex.

Ros Hague

Published inGender Politics


  1. Chris Sampson Chris Sampson

    While I agree that it is good for women and men to be treated equally, even if to the detriment of women, I believe you are over analysing this point. In doing so I think you are demonstrating sexism in our society… but not in the way that you intend to!

    The question you pose is: “why did insurance companies ever think the sex of a driver was directly relevant to their ability to drive a car?” The answer to this is very simple. Insurance companies found that they were paying out more, in claims, to men than to women. Therefore the market rate premium for men SHOULD be higher than for women. This is basic economic theory, not sexism. Should a 19 year old pay more than a 29 year old for insurance? Of course! They are more likely to have an accident. But this is not ageism, it is economics.

    I think your view on this matter exemplifies the problem with sexism in society today. This is that people create sexism where it does not exist. You have assumed that men and women are being treated differently in this case BECAUSE of sexism, when this is not the case. I’m afraid to say that it is you who introduced the point of women being ‘safer’ and ‘more caring’… not the insurance companies.

  2. Chris Baxter Chris Baxter

    This is an interesting move that requires comment thank you for the interesting piece. I’m still processing the whole idea and keep finding myself bumping up against the issue of Equal Pay.

    Whilst it seems fair to charge equal prices to men and women for the same service if women don’t have access to the same opportunity for fair pay is it fair?

    35 years after the Sex Discrimination Act where Equal Pay was first introduced there are still many employers who are not paying equitably.

    I also find myself thinking about age, as I approach a significant one myself, and wonder how fair it is to charge people differently because of age, particularly since this is now also a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

    I think the conclusion I am lurching towards is that insurance companies are inherently unfair and discriminating (I am also disabled!) and they are really not a great yard stick with which to understand equality.

    I don’t know if this adds to the discussion but it was nice to have somewhere to share my thoughts.

  3. Andy Andy

    Chris Sampson: Leave things to the ‘market’ and it WILL be sexist, ableist, conformist, etc (doesn’t matter if it intends to be), because it has no incentive in its own right to be inclusive rather than efficient… this is why we need to outlaw ALL the forms of irrelevant discrimination. Just the same as companies wouldn’t have an incentive to make allowances for employees with disabilities, or to allow maternity leave, unless forced to do so.

    People using market forces tend to deindividuate: they don’t care if such-and-such person is a safer driver or not, they care about aggregating risk factors which might say proportionately they’re a certain percentage less likely to be a safe driver because people in that category are proportionately more likely to be in accidents. It judges people by their categories, not their individuality, and as such is discriminatory. Doubly so since car insurance is a legal requirement for people who – it has been proven by tests – are safe enough to drive. (And that, too, is an abuse of power: the government imposing private consumption, creating a closed market).

    If a private individual accused someone of being a criminal just because they were black, or decides to avoid all black people because a higher percentage are criminals, I’m sure you’d consider this racism. Yet if a company, applying an abstract algorithm, similarly calculates that a black person is a higher risk for something and charges a higher premium, by your logic this isn’t racism – even though it’s doing the exact same thing. Both the individual and the company are extrapolating from aggregate statistics to an individual, both are making their own choices easier by doing so, at the expense of members of a minority group. Both may be making some small efficiency gain as a result. Why it is OK for a company but not for an individual?

    I think all kinds of generalisation from abstractions by those in power (state, corporate or private) should be banned. I also think it’s discrimination that young people have to pay higher premiums, that someone who has an accident that’s not their fault has to pay a higher premium, and that people have to pay higher premiums for unique or modified cars. None of these variables PROVES that the person in question is any less safe as a driver, they’re correlations abused as causal factors. All of them have insidious social effects: more homogenised appearance of cars, young people restricted in their job opportunities, etc. Most importantly, none of it is FAIR. It’s efficient for the companies, it benefits certain other people, but it isn’t fair. And that is enough to make it wrong.

    Right now it’s only being used for car insurance (and related market abuses, such as landlords discriminating against benefit claimants), but where does this market-aggregative mode of thinking lead? What if people with a certain gene are found to be some tiny percentage more likely to kill someone: are they going to be locked-up pre-emptively, or even genetically purged from the population by pre-natal testing? When Blair proposed detaining people with personality differences for supposed risk, it was estimated they’d have to lock up 1000 people who would never do anything for everyone one they’d predict accurately. This is the future we have in store if we don’t act to smash all aggregative criteria and demand human rights for everyone.

  4. Andy Andy

    Ohh, forgot to say: in the case of gender premiums, the discriminatory measure is actually beneficial in terms of social justice, since it compensates slightly for women’s lower average incomes – so framing it as discrimination is not entirely accurate. I don’t think, for example, that the Labour Party’s women-only shortlists policy, or the affirmative action programmes for black students in the US, are discriminatory, because it is rectifying discrimination: if there wasn’t some kind of underlying discrimination, there would be at least this proportion of the affected groups in these sectors anyway.

    • Chris Sampson Chris Sampson


      Wow, quite an essay that one! Unfortunately I think you missed my point.

      I was never speaking in defence of market forces, and if you read the first line of my previous comment you will see that I actually support the move (so we don’t disagree!). However, my point was this: insurance companies may very well be discriminating against men, but this does not make them sexist. For me it is all about intentions.

      Let’s say I have a £10 note in my hand, which I want to give to a homeless person. I happen to see two; one male and one female. Let’s say they are identical in every sense aside from their sex. I need to decide who to give my £10 to. Let’s say I give it to the man based on the fact that I know he probably needs to eat more than the woman to survive. Am I discriminating based on sex – yes I am. Am I being sexist – no I am not. I would be discriminating BASED ON sex, but not discriminating BECAUSE of sex.

      The existence of discrimination in economic settings is analogous to this. As such I think Ros Hague is wrong to call insurance companies sexist and is wrong to argue that they discriminate BECAUSE of sex. I think in doing so she actually exacerbates the problem. That said, I agree with the policy and I think positive discrimination is a vital tool in levelling the playing field in the long-term. On this I think we agree!

  5. Andy Andy

    Ahh, sorry for misunderstanding. We’re in the field of liberal vs structural theories of discrimination. The difficulty is that this argument would make disability discrimination pretty much impossible: nobody (I hope) builds stairs instead of ramps BECAUSE they want to keep people in wheelchairs out.

    • Chris Sampson Chris Sampson

      Wow, that’s a thinker! You clearly know more about this than me; if I were against the policy then the disabled example would certainly leave me with no leg to stand on (no pun, seriously).

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