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.