A Woman’s Work Is To Be More Visible

I have often been struck, while watching Battlestar Galactica and reading the wonderful Harry Potter books, at the gender equality in the professional world that is a matter of course, and unremarked upon. Male and female Viper pilots, aurors, admirals and politicians are roughly equal in numbers in these imagined/future worlds – a striking contrast to our own.* Can anyone imagine Top Gun with a woman in the cockpit? Will America ever have a female five-star general? (There is currently only one female 4-star general, and it this is indeed an admirable rank for her to have achieved considering that women are excluded by law from combat jobs, which is how one usually attains this rank.) And why is it that this picture of 31 world leaders features only 3 women (and zero men willing to make “bold” fashion statements by wearing something other than a black suit)?

*NB – post historical is unable to find comparable statistics for the gender ratio within the auror population in the muggle world.

I think we would be hard pressed to find many modern, moderately liberal thinkers who really believe that women and men do not demonstrate equal abilities in school, in the workplace, and in life, when given equal opportunities at the start. So what is causing the gap between early achievement and long-term achievement in management, politics, and other fields traditionally dominated by men?

Consider the way our work is structured, valued, and divided by gender. Why does society pay more for skilled and unskilled labour that is more physical (construction, manufacturing, etc.) than not (cleaning, administration), even when both are equally dangerous (think about getting whacked with a beam vs. breathing in chemicals)? Why does society pay more for intellectual work that is math- and science-oriented (engineering, physics, financial modelling) than communications- and socially-oriented (teaching, social work, human resources)? Note, of course, the gender skewing in the above-described professions. Do engineers really think harder than teachers? Is interpersonal skill less valuable than conceptual? (In real terms, it seems, undoubtedly.) These jobs require the same amount of education – and yet, while women make up a greater percentage of graduating classes than ever before, and go further with their education (in 2005, women earned 59% of all degrees, diplomas and certificates granted in Canada), they are still earning 77 cents for every dollar a man earns for comparative work in the western world.

I suspect it is a historical holdover: work that would have advanced societies in a noticeable and often material way – building transportation networks or bridges, discovering that the planets orbit the sun, physically moving structures hither and yon to avoid battles over resources, fighting in battles over resources, etc. – were nearly always the purview of men. These important and visible accomplishments thus came to be seen as more valuable over the long term, and those who achieved them – men – were seen as more valuable too. In contrast, the invisible, slow-moving, yet critically important day-to-day work of holding society together by cleaning house, cooking food, and communicating a way of life to offspring, was usually left to the women. It was wives, mothers, sisters, and likely many mistresses who looked after the great and almost uniformly male philosophers, architects, leaders and warriors, by worrying about the everyday things like washing their clothes and making their food, so they didn’t have to do so. (I suspect this is also where the fascination with male – but not female – sports figures comes in. It has long been a tradition to prepare men for war with visible demonstrations of strength in sports, while women’s work is invisible.) In the modern world, it is not about the gender; it’s about the work.

I think part of the solution is to get away from the idea of men vs. women, and to start focusing on the value of the work and de-sigmatizing certain types of work as inferior. State funding of pensions for life-long unpaid caregivers like mothers might be one solution (and one that might narrow the overwhelming gap between financial well-being of elderly men and women), though I am loath to ascribe more fiscal responsibilities to the state. Another might be to pay professionals in the public sector like teachers and social workers more, and compensate by paying engineers or economists less. A third would be to increase paternity leave benefits. But in the long run, a change in attitudes is required, both toward what constitutes a “woman’s work” and just how much that work really gives back to society.

2 Responses to A Woman’s Work Is To Be More Visible

  1. Jeremy Weiss says:

    Right off the top, just so you know, there will likely never be a five-star general in the US military. The “Five Star” rank was specifically created to honor fourteen commanders at the end of WWII, and has not been used since. Think people like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz and Arnold. So there won’t be any female five-stars =)

    Another thing that I think you have overlooked but that definitely has an impact, in my relatively uninformed view, is the issue of childbirth. Lots of women in the middle and upper class, though not all, spend several years away from work when their children are young. I can think of several examples in my personal life of women who were successful office professionals, including one with a highly advanced degree, who left the workforce for over a decade when they had children. Some, like a friend of mine from college with an MBA, never return (though this is becoming less frequent). As a result, the overall level of experience counting towards raises and promotions for the female workforce as a result is probably considerably lower than that of men. If there are a 50 year old man and woman applying for the same position, with the same degree, but the woman took off 10 years between age 27 and 37 to raise young children, that will negatively impact her chances of getting the job and her leverage in salary negotiations.

    I think you are really on to something when you talk about de-stigmatizing certain sectors of the economy which are favored by women. Teaching is case-in-point for all kinds of problems with our society. For instance, we complain that there are no good teachers (well, some people complain about that – I don’t) while we essentially make it difficult to live an ordinary, comfortable middle class life on a teacher’s salary. But then, when people talk about raising the pay of teachers, the same complainers either say we can’t afford that, or that it will encourage people to get into teaching just for the money. It seems our poor teachers can’t win with some people. So the fact that this profession which is stuck between a rock and a hard place is so full of women is a good thing for you to focus on.

    On the other hand, there are other more lucrative areas which are either traditionally or increasingly the domain of women. The first is nursing, which in the USA is a very well-paying job. The second is pharmacy, something I have a lot of personal connection to since my dad has been a pharmacist for his whole life. These days pharmacy schools are nearly 80% female, because as my dad says it is the perfect way for women to have their family lives and still keep a good, well-paying job. Pharmacists get paid about the same amount of money regardless of experience, can set their own schedules and work part-time as much as they wish, and can enter and leave the profession to find it pretty much the same as when they left it. Thus, if a woman becomes a pharmacist at age 24, and then leaves the profession at age 30 for a decade for child-rearing, she can return at age 40 to the same job at whatever the prevailing wage is for pharmacists. Thus, as my dad argues, pharmacy is the perfect way for lots of women to have a scientifically-oriented professional career that involves helping the public while still maintaining their family life.

    So I think you’re on to something here. I think the de-stigmatization is something that we should focus on, regardless of gender. But in the short term I think there are some avenues for women to sort of solve this kind of impasse between work and family life, which is largely what I think a lot of this comes down to.

  2. Kathryn Exon says:

    How about de-stigmatizing child care as something men can do, so women don’t have to take time out of the workforce? Or, perhaps, de-stigmatizing families and women who choose not to have children? (I don’t think the latter is beneficial in the long term, though it would solve a lot of problems for women in the short term).

    You have very correctly identified, Jeremy, that the real issue is not being a woman, but being a mother. Single/childless women don’t have nearly as many issues with not earning the same amount, and not being able to keep up with the latest training/learning. Monthers do, by virtue of being out of the workforce.

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