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.