Sunday, January 22, 2006

Chained to the womb

Another depressing article on women in today's Sunday Times which pretty much summarises the front-line of feminism: "the most insoluble of human conflicts — families versus careers"

Feminism has lost the plot quite a bit which is why it's not really trendy to be a feminist. There are probably 3 main threads of which two are a red herring.

The first red herring is why there are fewer men than women in any given occupation and whether men and women are actually 'on par'. But it doesn't really matter if it turns out that men are better, on average, at maths and science or have a higher IQ on average. This is because our understanding of intelligence is pretty vague (does it include 'creativity' and what is 'creativity'? Is art a form of intelligence?) and it's not entirely clear that academic qualifications or IQ tests actually measure functional 'intelligence'. IQ is not directly correlated to 'success' - emotional intelligence and motivation are also important. It's also an average - it would mean that there would always be fewer women in maths and science but that shouldn't decrease the employability of an intelligent woman who was good at maths and science. Of course, in practice it would mean HR men with low IQs would assume a woman who walked through their door had a lower IQ than a man who walked through their door which is why the reaction to Mr Summers was a number of women preferring to walk out than "black... out or throw... up".

The second red herring is covered by the second page of the Times article, the debate about whether women flaunting their bodies, enjoying pornography, etc. is liberation or the normalisation of oppression.

Yep, it's a peacock. It's a bird (ok, it's a male bird). It wants to attract a mate. It displays. It wants to get down and dirty with other birds. It probably enjoys it. It doesn't spend ages concerning itself over whether displaying its assets means it's subjugating itself to matriarchal (or patriarchal) oppression. Period.

The third thread is the real front-line of feminism. This is the most insoluble of human conflicts - that women still have to choose a career or a child, whereas men can have both. Or, in the words of the Guardian article - Stuck on the 'mummy track' - why having a baby means lower pay and prospects:

Before they have children, the average hourly wage for female workers is 91% of the male average but declines to 67% for working mothers juggling jobs and childcare. Their wages relative to men then stagnate for 10 years before showing a modest recovery, reports the study, Newborns and New Schools. But even when children have left home, the average hourly wage for their mothers remained at 72% of the male average

The number of women who are sacked or pushed out upon becoming pregnant is still disgracefully high. School-age children cause a problem due to child-minding duties, which restrict... working hours. Women are worried by reports that nurseries may restrict their child's development.

This state of affairs affects women with different interests and aspirations differently. During my Gap Year I worked with a fair few clerical workers who felt they were in a rut careers-wise, who didn't feel they were indispensible to their work or making a difference (the 'small cog' syndrome) and whose fulfilment in work was from their colleagues rather than the nature of their work. Many of them wanted to give up full-time work to look after children whilst keeping their social contacts by working part-time but often felt they couldn't afford to do so. Where they felt they could go part-time, their working hours were conducive to child-care and the development of their career wasn't a high priority. They felt that bringing up a child was far more satisfying and fulfilling than filing paperwork or typing. It was somewhere they could feel they made a real difference.

At the other end of the spectrum, the super mums like Ruth Kelly (4 children, economics reporter, deputy editor of the Bank of England's quarterly financial report) or Nicola Horlick (5 children) are well-off enough to afford hired help.

The third class of women are those who are not able to afford a nanny and who don't have relatives who could look after children, but who view their job/career or their extra-curricular activities (e.g. voluntary work) as their main sphere of influence. They want promotion and their job often requires long hours. Assuming they've a suitable partner at that point, these women have an unpalatable choice. Either they choose not to have children (or hope they can make enough money before they become infertile to pay someone to look after them) or they consign their career to the scrap heap. By making the choice to look after children and losing at least some of their income, women who have been competing with men in the workplace suddenly become a dependent (kinda like being a teenager and trying to beg money off your parents over again). And to women who value their job rather than just their colleagues, housekeeper and carer can't compare. Worst case scenario is that it's soul-destroying - this could be my mum (who gave up work to look after me):

A married woman in late middle-age wakes up alone, again. She cleans her big empty house before settling down to a pile of ironing. She makes herself something modest to eat. She switches on the radio. The day goes on. Perhaps later she’ll do some gardening. She feels a little lonely, to tell the truth, but she knows it’ll pass. The children have left home and she hasn’t spoken to her husband for several days. He’s away... working. She imagines him getting ready... She notices a kitchen worktop is dirty and dutifully wipes it.

[In case you're wondering - it's Doreen Davis]. It's a situation where the woman is long out of the job market, has become unaccustomed to employment, is possibly depressed, whose self-esteem and identity has narrowed down to how well she's cooked carrots and who can't conceive of escape because she has no self-confidence, no independent identity left and nowhere to go. Don't tell me it's an admirable sacrifice - it's tragic. Giving women a proper choice is the real front-line of feminism.

[This is a rant - cue flames :D]

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