Sunday, October 28, 2012

XX = ?

Heated political rhetoric about abortion and a "war on women" obscure the dismal reality that is gender inequality in America

We've heard ad nauseum for months that women1 will decide this election, and both Republicans and Democrats are trying hard to court their votes.  And yet the most memorable episodes in recent weeks relating to women have been Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (R) describing pregnancies from rape as "something God intended", Rep. Joe Walsh (R) stating that "modern technology and science" have eliminated threats to pregnant women's health, and Rep. Todd Akin (R) -- who sits on the House Science Committee! -- positing that the female body can terminate pregnancies from "legitimate rape".

Despite what the debased and disgraceful dialogue of this election season would have us believe, gender issues go far beyond rape, abortion, and reproductive rights.  Although there's a tendency to think we're set because women now outnumber men in the workforce and in the ranks of college graduates, proclaiming "The End of Men" remains hyperbolic.

We live in a society where women earn less than men even in the same field, where they are shut out or opt out of leadership roles in the workplace, where they are considered unprofessional if they do not paint their faces and wear health-ruining shoes, where the normal and routine biological process of menstruation is treated as taboo, where the custom is to take their respective husband's last name at marriage, and where pointing out these incongruities is considered radical (the word "feminism" having somehow taken on negative connotations).2

Don't get me wrong, I know plenty of women who enjoy wearing makeup and love wearing a glamorous pair of heels, and that's OK -- we are all hard-wired to appreciate aesthetics and admire beauty.  But we certainly can't claim to be the most enlightened, egalitarian society if the standards we set regarding gender roles are so ridiculous.

Childcare may be the most common explanation given for why women can't be as professionally dedicated as men.  Is there a different way to do things?  Scandinavian countries, for example, have a much higher workforce participation rate by women.  Consider Sweden, where the male role in childcare and the importance of women in the workplace is implicitly understood -- Swedish fathers receive extensive paternal leave.  This has been a contributing factor allowing 72% of Swedish women to work part-time or full-time.

There is dearth of high-profile American women leaders as well.  The Fortune 500 has only 20 CEOs, or 4%.  Only 16% of elected officials in Congress are women.  The United States has never had a female president, and Hillary Clinton's 2008 run was accompanied by some ridiculous commentary and criticism.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved on with this as a non-issue, as Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Germany's Angela Merkel show.  Merkel, Europe's de facto leader, ranks in the top five or so most powerful people on the world.  While I don't follow German politics closely, I marvel at her on-paper background, which would sadly be uncommon here: a multilingual physical chemist3 with no powerful/dynastic family ties to politics.4

So instead of hearing the campaigns' empty pandering to women this fall, I hope we can hear our leaders talk about policy shifts and the need to evolve our cultural attitudes.  Social views change extremely slowly, but government can help by funding options for more affordable childcare (so that working women can stay on the job) and offering other economic incentives.  Elected officials and business leaders can set an example by appointing more qualified women to high-ranking positions.  Universities need to do more to attract women toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and companies in the information economy (where today's higher-paying jobs are) need to recruit more women.  If we do this, we can benefit women, create a more balanced society, and make sure our best and brightest -- regardless of gender -- can shine.

1. I've noticed that on every political talk show and in every newspaper column, "women" are described, analyzed, and projected as a monolithic group of voters.  As for being the decisive segment of the electorate of this election, well, the whole being 50% of the population makes that a rather obvious and facile insight.

2. Once, in conversation with one of my closest friends -- a smart, independent, and accomplished professional woman -- she was describing to me her wariness about a new roommate who would be moving in.  To my surprise, what got my friend's guard up is that this new girl seemed like a "feminist".

3. Elected officials with a scientific background are rare in the U.S., a great shame at a time when scientifically illiterate politicians are advocating wrong and dangerous policies.

4. America's highest-ranking female politician was Nancy Pelosi when she served as House Speaker; she came from a family of elected officials.  America's most respected female leader today, Secretary of State Clinton, is a great and distinguished public servant, but there's no question her high profile owes a lot to husband Bill having been president.


NJ said...

There's no reason for more women, in particular, to go into STEM. We need more people in general to be educated in these fields, rather than finance or law.
Also, why doesn't anyone ask conservative women about what they think about women in society? Maybe they're totally content with not being on par with men. Is that okay?

Jay said...

Yes, the general public needs to be better educated in those areas, but it absolutely matters to have more women working in STEM fields. Women now making up the majority of college graduates and many of them who would excel at engineering, computer programming, or in other high-tech fields eschew those careers because they are perceived as largely male domains. This has economic consequences because the best and brightest don't have a chance to make an impact.

Gender equality isn't about "conservative women" or liberal women. No one is saying that women shouldn't choose to focus on childcare or shouldn't compete with men in every career field. However, they should certainly have that choice open to them. And it has to be a fair choice -- meaning, there must be a level playing field. If men make much more than women, the field is artificially tilted toward women being saddled with the majority of childcare/domestic work, when in many cases, smart and talented women and their families would be better off with them excelling in business, politics, medicine, etc.

Anonymous said...

mmm I like the sentiment and I'd agree that economic incentives that give female parents the same opportunities in the work place as male parents (i.e. paternity leave) should be in place, but I'm not sure it's a good idea for any program (STEM, leadership roles, etc.) to be encouraging participation of women through special recruitment/selection/funding or anything else. Giving anyone a leg up based on a parameter irrelevant to their likelihood for success doesn't serve the institution (of science, government, etc.) itself, and is, in my opinion, discriminatory to everyone in the majority. To me personally, it's also kind of patronizing. I don't think that women who choose not to go into science, leadership, or the workforce at all are lesser women- they're free to make that choice. And if most women do choose not to do so, then unless some institution would suffer due to a lack of x chromosomes, I don't see a point in encouraging female participation. Why not leave them male dominated? -Neha

Jay said...

I didn't argue for any hard quotas or taking less qualified women, measures which can be discriminatory to the majority. And I agree with you that women who "choose not to go into science, leadership, or the workforce" are not "lesser women".

But as I said in my response to NJ above, choice is what matters, and we have to ensure that men and women can make a fair choice based on a level playing field. There is most definitely a problem with leaving certain fields male-dominated, as you suggested, because it is an economic and social inefficiency:

(1) Eminently qualified women never get to make the impact they could, while less competent men occupy those roles; imagine how public policy may be shaped differently if women made up a more representative share of elected office, or consider that we are missing out on breakthroughs in bioengineering or software design because brilliant women don't think those are fields for them

(2) Family roles are artificially impacted too (for example, for some couples, it may make sense for the man to take a larger or primary role in childcare and domestic duties)

ST said...

Great piece. Absolutely agree that childcare plays a huge role in the gender equality struggle. Though I agree with Neha's sentiment. Not sure if having - dare I say - "binders full of women" for STEM careers is the way to fix the problem (we should have "binders full of Americans" in STEM careers in general... but that's another story altogether!).

I think a lot of this has to do with our idea of "equality". What is it to be equal in the work place - pay? stature? happiness? Equal pay for equal roles in equal jobs is something we can and should certainly address. But when it comes to social attitudes towards women in certain career types, this is something we have to address culturally. But to give our country some credit, we've come a long way since the last century.

Would be great to have more women in public policy. I agree that it would add a different perspective and attitude in the government. But the personality type has to be extraordinarily strong to move past the social criticism. Imagine if she looked like Newt Gingrich. You think people would look past her image?

Sarah E. said...

I really liked your blog post! Here are some thoughts:

1. In my field male managers currently dominate, especially in large research institutions, in part because of historical affirmative action to combat the "feminization of the profession" and the dearth of men in librarianship after WWII; the government (through GI Bill) and library professionals advertised heavily to men and offered them leadership positions over qualified women, and this has affected attitudes ever since (including the separation of women's work--technical, small/public library--and men's work--management, creative, large/research library). So why not now have incentives to encourage both sexes with skills and leadership potential? I also wonder if the increase of women in the military in recent decades has opened the STEM field to more women, and if within the next twenty years, we might see more balance.

2. As long as women perpetuate idiocy, we'll remain idiots. At some point we have to put aside the limits our mothers and grandmothers placed on us and advocate for building upon the things our mothers and grandmothers achieved. Our definitions of beauty, strength, success, and love are so damaged, it's pathetic. YES, it's a wonderful, beautiful thing for a stay-at-home mom to raise her children. It's just as beautiful for a woman to invent the next popular app or perform skilled surgery with the help of a male nurse (see #3). I met talented young Latina women in STEM programs while mentoring middle-school, and they experienced heightened isolation and bullying from their peers that isn't limited to a single culture or location; unfortunately, because these women were smart, they felt this discrimination keenly, leading to feelings of insecurity and depression. I strongly believe that having extra support for these young women is necessary (cue AmeriCorps rant). There is incredible discrimination towards women who venture into "male" fields, or even professional fields in general; look at what they've done to the female lead in "Bones," and you'll get the idea.

3. Let's talk about the male nurse: as long as there is pressure on men to prove their masculinity in defined ways, a) men will be pushed or feel they must take positions they neither deserve nor want and b) there will continue to be a difference between "women's" work and "men's" work. It makes you wonder if Hillary was one of the only women able to compete for the presidency, because her husband wouldn't be perceived as weak, having already been president.

4. There has been discussion about women and pay discrimination, although not to the extent that you have, for sure (which seems to be a trend with every other topic this election).,8599,1874954,00.html

5. I liked your comment about feminism: for anyone interested in that discussion, definitely check out the experience of this woman trying to address sex stereotypes in videogames. Notice how insults focus on sex stereotypes and looks; would insults towards a man focus on these things? As long as we're limited to perceiving women as a sex rather than humans, we aren't going to get anywhere.