Thursday, July 05, 2007

Feminism and Gender Equality in the 21st Century

"Does feminist mean 'large unpleasant person who'll shout at you' or 'someone who believes women are human beings'? To me it's the latter, so I sign up."

-Margaret Atwood


I recently read a very well-written and incisive blog posting written by a woman I met through debating. Though I commented on it on her blog, I wanted to expand somewhat on what I'd written, because the post adeptly elucidates much of what I've felt for some time, and does so from a position of someone with a vested interest, lending it even greater credence. The post details the concept of feminism and why the author considers herself not to be a feminist. This is something with which I have to concur. I think the concept of feminism, as commonly held and espoused by the majority who claim to preach its doctrines, is flawed. Now before my friend Liz whacks me with a 2x4, let me explain...

Let me be clear-I am by no stretch anti-female. I don't think women are inferior, I don't think they should be subjugated, oppressed or controlled. Further, I don't write off many of the concepts of feminist theory; I just think that, as a whole, the idea has been skewed by people who have taken it off the rails into ill-defined and often blithely shallow territory. So perhaps it's better to say that I take issue with what feminism has commonly come to be construed as, as well as those who claim to be shining examples of its doctrines.

I agree with the cited blog post insofar as I think that one of the greatest problems is a lack of definitive clarity as to what feminism actually means. And here I think the first kinks begin to show in the armour. Because many people would tell you it relates to equality of opportunity. This means that a man and woman, of equal qualifications and skills, should be paid the same. To me, this isn't feminism, this is humanity and common sense. So, is it an opinion that women are intrinsically superior? There are certainly those who hold that viewpoint, but I think the question is trite, primarily because superiority is itself ill-defined-superior in what sense? So what about the notion that men and women are totally identical in every potential, and it is societal influences that mould us into disparate creatures? I deny this notion-first of all, there are physical differences; men are not (by and large) bigger due to diet and gym regimes. We are bigger because testosterone grows muscle better. Similarly, I firmly believe that men and women have different intellectual and emotional strengths; I don't see anything wrong with this. So, many of the most commonly-held views of what it means to be a feminist are views with which I either disagree or agree insofar as I feel the issue is self-evident and requires no such "-ism" label. I'm not a "masculist" because I think men should have the chance to be paid as well as women; I shouldn't have to be a "feminist" to believe the reverse is true.

My second issue with most people's view on feminism is that it is a zero-sum game. A zero sum game is one in which, for one side to "win", the other must "lose". For example, sports are a zero-sum game: if one team rises in the rankings, another has fallen. Stocks, however, are an example of something that isn't. Just because Apple's stock rises, doesn't means Microsoft's falls. In fact, it's theoretically possible, through the magic of economics, for every stock in existence to rise in a given trading day. In terms of feminism, I feel many people view the issue as a zero-sum game: if you are pro-woman, it must mean you're anti-man. This is just wrong, and it this thinking that leads people to automatically equate "feminist" with "man-hater". It is simple fact that one can support women's rights without impinging on men's. But the inherent assumption behind many feminists is that you must push men down in order to be able to elevate women. All this does is galvanise both sides into a black-and-white idealogical debate that need not take place. It is similar to movements such as the Black Panther movement in the 1960s that preached black supremacy; rather than striving for integration and the elimination of barriers, all this does is energise your opposition.

The biggest issue I take with the allegedly-feminist views I've heard espoused, however, is that there is only one way to be feminist, and only one line of thought leading to that standard; that many groups have wildly disparate views of what that one way is is evidence of the very fallacy of the concept. There are those who will say that a woman should not use her looks to her advantage; there are those who preach conformity to male ideals (as evidenced in the shoulder-pad suits so prominent in the 80s and 90s). There are those who feel that every instance of the word "man" should be replaced with "person" (chairman to chairperson, congressman to congressperson and so forth). There are those who feel that men and women are fundamentally identical and therefore every position should be held by 50% women (I'll get to this ridiculous assertion in a minute, as I feel it's deleterious enough to merit its own paragraph). In a realistic, pragmatic world, there is no singular way to do anything, much less define one's identity. A perfect example of this arises in one of my favourite television shows, The West Wing. At one point Sam, one of the lead male roles, makes the comment "you'd make a good dog break his leash" to Ainsley, a recurring female lead who is both skilled and very physically attractive (and dressed in a very fetching backless ball gown at the time the comment was made). A female coworker takes offense at his "sexist" remark-she feels that Sam is degrading Ainsley by complementing her on her sexuality in lieu of her skills as a lawyer or her intelligence and general aptitudes. I disagree. I don't think that being physically attractive takes away from one's skill or power in other areas, nor do I feel that it automatically makes one an empty shell. This is the consensus that many of the other characters reach in that specific episode, but I feel that many feminists would still take offense. My point here is that neither side is automatically right. There are arguments to be made that emphasising one's sexuality decreases one's power and control or automatically makes it impossible for one to escape being merely "eye candy"; similarly, there are arguments that say one should use any and all tools at one's disposal and that complimenting a woman (or a man for that matter) on their sexuality in no way implies that you value them less as an intelligent human being.

"What's the point in feminism if I can't shave my legs when I damn well want to?"

-S. Camus

Now, the matter of quotas. As I mentioned above, there is often a push amongst feminist groups to eliminate the gender split in the workforce, either in terms of wages, or in terms of the number of people who make up that role (that is to say, every job should employ 50% women, 50% men). The disparity is especially prevalent in certain fields, notably computer science and engineering. In many cases, schools are actively trying to recruit female students into these programs. In some cases (I read an article to this effect ages ago, which sadly I cannot locate), there is a stated goal of having 50% enrollment. I think this misses the point entirely. Assuming that, just because the overall ratio of women-men is 50-50 implies that any given degree or job (much less every degree or job) should match that ratio is foolish, and is a shining example of feminism gone awry. Men and women do think differently, they have different strengths and weaknesses, and different avenues of study and employment appeal to them. A simple example is highly-physical labour (firemen, construction workers etc.). Men are physically larger and stronger than women, and I see no harm in there being more firemen than firewomen. In academics, if a particular field appeals more to one gender, so be it; this happens for both genders-some programs (notably biological sciences, psychology, veterinary science and many of the fine arts) are absolutely dominated by women and yet I feel no urge to cry foul that these degrees are discriminating against men; I realise they are degrees which are simply of a greater magnetism to women, for varied and perhaps unknown reasons. What we must do is ensure there are no artificial barriers to entry to these jobs or degrees. When it comes to women in engineering and computer science, this means making sure there's no harassment of women, either overt or subtle, that there isn't a residual "old boys' club" mentality, and so forth. Unfortunately, if you're a politician it's easier to point to a number and say "50%! Success!" than it is to to a thorough audit of any lingering sexism in a system as broad as a university or workplace. And politicians will take the easy and more-publicly-visible way out whenever they can.

Similarly, an assertion that every woman should make the same as every man is ludicrous. Unluckily for women (or lucky if you think kids aren't a giant pain in the ass), women have been saddled by nature as the ones who bear children. This means that a woman who chooses to raise a family must take time off work. But what people fail to realise is that a year off work actually sets one back by well over a year: the lost training, missing out on technological advances in one's line of work, and simply forgetting some of what you've done mean that a year's diversion mid-career puts one further back in one's career than it would seem. Put another way, someone with five uninterrupted years of experience will be much better-trained and much more capable than someone who has worked every other year for the past decade, taking the alternate years completely off of training and employment. The solution to this, of course, is to enshrine the concept of paternal leave, allowing men to share the burden of child-rearing early-on, and to allow women to continue training where possible while on maternity leave. But to compare a man and a woman in the same position, each with an apparent 10 years of experience, and then point to their disparate salaries as automatically implying sexism is disingenuous. Because if in that time, the woman took a year off for each of two kids, her career has probably been set back by the equivalent of three years. Blind equality is misleading; what's needed is a true evaluation of the equivalency of two employees' potential, and salaries commensurate to that.

This leads me to what I think we need in place of feminism: a total equality of opportunity. In every case, whether it be a job application or a university education, everyone who applies, regardless of gender, race, or any other characteristic, should be presented with the same chances to excel or fail based on their individual merits. Those who are the best candidates should be admitted and prosper; those who are ill-suited should (and will) fall by the wayside. This should be held true in our hearts and enshrined in the annals of law and in academia and corporations the world over. This isn't an easy thing to achieve-distorted views, adversarial sentiments and old-fashioned sexism are often hard to detect, even within oneself. But I think that modern feminism in many ways is counter-productive. By trying to force a supremacy of women, by espousing views that are easily seen by the masses as "man hating", and by trying to pigeonhole women into any one of a number of wildly disparate "right ways to do things", you exacerbate the situation. People put their guards up, and become instantly recalcitrant to engage in the matter to a meaningful degree. You cannot reason with someone whose shackles are nor, nor with someone who feels attacked and denigrated.

So if not feminism, what is this? I think it's simply: humanism. You don't have to feel women are superior in order to feel they should have equality of opportunity. That's just human decency. You don't need to believe men and women are identical in every biological way to believe that the salaries of two people who are truly equivalent should be same, no matter what; you just need common sense. And you don't need an antiquated affirmative-action quota or ratio system to ensure that every role in the world is filled by 50% women; you just have to make sure that it settles at the natural, equilibrium level, that there is nothing preventing hopeful candidates. It's not feminism, it's humanism.

"Women: their rights, and nothing less; Men: their rights, and nothing more."

-Susan B. Anthony

2 comments:

Chris said...

“Similarly, I firmly believe that men and women have different intellectual and emotional strengths; I don't see anything wrong with this.”

I don’t see how this is the case. What validates this claim over –and-above the likelihood that these differences are influenced more heavily by culture, society and what a person actually does? To take you biological example of testosterone and muscle growth… There are plenty of men I know who are quite weak, despite their testosterone levels, simply because they do nothing active. While there may be biological difference in men and women (although some argue the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ have no consistent definition, biological or otherwise), those differences don’t necessitate any meaningful difference between them in practice.

“I'm not a "masculist" because I think men should have the chance to be paid as well as women; I shouldn't have to be a "feminist" to believe the reverse is true.”

No, but it’s unlikely that you’d know women are paid less if there was no feminist movement to break the silence (so to speak) and to inform you of this fact.

“But the inherent assumption behind many feminists is that you must push men down in order to be able to elevate women.”

This is a misconception. There are certainly feminist that think this way, but you’d be hard pressed to find a person working towards feminist causes in the non-academic world who actually believes this. Sophomoric women’s studies majors might initially take this bend, but the feminist community rarely thinks of anything in terms of sums, let alone zero-sums. They despise the patriarchal system that has left women oppressed, not men. To conflate the two would be analogous to holding living white people accountable for the institution of slavery… or hating them for it at least. Very few feminist think like this, so your concern is addressing a truly small contingent of the feminist population.

“Men and women do think differently, they have different strengths and weaknesses, and different avenues of study and employment appeal to them.”

And feminists ask why? To say that this is the course of some natural inclination or certain set of properties just seems misguided given that women have taken on every masculine role in almost every field (and back in the WWII era, to boot). If it’s not a matter of natural inclination, then it must be something aroused through experience; through media, culture, social interaction, family dynamics etc. But these institutions all have a history, and one that is thoroughly entwined with the oppression of women.

“A simple example is highly-physical labour (firemen, construction workers etc.). Men are physically larger and stronger than women, and I see no harm in there being more firemen than firewomen.”

Funny you bring up these professions… The City of Los Angeles lost a law suit last week because a woman (a black lesbian at that) was being harassed at her fire station and apparently her Captain.

http://cms.firehouse.com/content/article/article.jsp?id=55412§ionId=46

Do you think this sort of behavior would even take place if half the fire fighters were women? So I do see a problem with having the vast majority of fire fighters, or any profession, dominated by men (or even women). The problem resides in the sociological nature of unified groups to do horrible acts against the minority when they are in positions of such overwhelming power.

It makes the point more poignant that I’ve met Brenda, and am convinced she could bench more that I ever could…

There’s no problem per se with a non-50-50 distribution of jobs amongst the sexes, but when you take into account the historical context of why there would be such a (drastically skewed) distribution, it seems to become abundantly clear that there is a problem, and that the reason for the distribution cannot simply be dismissed by ‘natural inclinations to do x as opposed to y.’

“if a particular field appeals more to one gender, so be it; this happens for both genders-some programs (notably biological sciences, psychology, veterinary science and many of the fine arts) are absolutely dominated by women and yet I feel no urge to cry foul that these degrees are discriminating against men; I realise they are degrees which are simply of a greater magnetism to women, for varied and perhaps unknown reasons.”

Feminists are looking to elucidate what these “unknown reasons” might be… It’s in this epistemic gap that patriarchy runs rampant. It gets filled to off-the-cuff theories about gender roles and hormones, lacking the thorough analysis of the very complex notion of choice that is necessary to discover the nature of these reasons.

I empathize with your closing remarks, but would expound on them a bit. Any humanist with even the least bit of empirical data ought to applaud the efforts of feminist to end the oppression of women. If one believes all people should be afforded the same opportunity (and one wishes to make the world so), then he/she ought to instantly champion a movement to afford women the opportunity that they clearly lack and deserve. That is, if you’re a humanist, then you should be a feminist, in that you recognize the oppression of women, and think that it should be otherwise…

You’re main problems with feminism stem from common misconceptions about it (common is the same sense as in “common sense” used throughout the article, which tells you something about the common-ness of common sense), as facilitated by slanted anti-feminist media. Many of the attacks you raise above are directed at the very small population of feminists that regard Gyn/Ecology by Daly as their bible, not the lion’s share of feminist who are nothing like the man-hating stereotypes you seem to paint them as above.

Feminism major problems a rooted in these misconceptions, and it does little good to discount the work of feminists (or feminism) and trumpet some other theoretical camp that has the very same ends just for the sake of avoiding these stereotypes. For one you’ll be labeled a feminist anyway, and be back at square one, and two, your discredit the legacy that has done so much to bring about the power women have thus far achieved (at least in the States).

“[People] regardless of gender, race, or any other characteristic, should be presented with the same chances to excel or fail based on their individual merits. … This should be held true in our hearts and enshrined in the annals of law and in academia and corporations the world over.”

The notion of an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been brought up, and silenced three times in the past century… The right you outline above is still not guaranteed in America… That should tell you something about the perennial and hegemonic nature of the patriarchy…

Prometheus said...

Chris: Thanks for your points. You express them very well, but there are a few key issues I take with your arguments:

You are absolutely correct that there are certain women who are stronger than certain men. I was talking about the aggregate. On the whole, men are physically larger and stronger. I'm not saying firefighting should be male-exclusive (and I certainly don't condone sexual harassment), but I'm saying that in jobs that require that level of physicality, there is a natural tendency for them to be more male-dominated. It's about the average case, not the exceptions, and the average male is taller and stronger (especially in upper-body strength) than the average woman.

Does society play a role (pushing men to lift weights to build their muscles further)? Of course, and it may well have a predominant effect on these roles. But my point was that you can't ignore the biology: men and women are biologically different; hormones, muscle growth and neural development. This exists in most mammalian species, including those which lack a social structure and access to CNN. My point, is that seeking an arbitrary 50-50 split is oversimplifying and disingenuous. What we need is the equality of opportunity.

To stick with my firefighter example, they should absolutely pick the best people for the job; their job (and any job really) is too important to hire anyone who isn't ideally-qualified. They should've hired Brenda if she's as strong as you indicate, and the department should be taken to task for mistreating her. This is possible-when racial integration first took place in academia and industry, there was much friction. But you didn't have to apply a 50-50 black-white balance to every job in Alabama to achieve civility. Instead, you prosecuted those who were discriminatory and allowed racial normalisation to occur as the general populace began to wake up to the facts of racial equality.

The LAFD should have hired Brenda. But if a 100lb 5'2" woman applied, perhaps they'd be better off hiring a 6'2", 280lb man for the job, rather than striving for a 50-50 mix. My point is that, for a variety of reasons, including biology, people are differently-suited for different jobs, and they should be hired based on that suitability, not their gender and not to hit an arbitrary gender balance. You can't look at the exceptions, you look at the trend. And the trend is that men are physically bigger and stronger, thus more suited for such jobs. Similarly, women have been shown to be more adept at mental multitasking, empathy and non-linear thinking. This makes them more suited (again, on average) for those professions I outlined as being more female-dominated.

And don't get my history confused either: I think the feminist movement was VITAL to arrive where we are now, but I think that the goals have become confused and so wildly disparate that they no longer suit the current status quo. They've done a good job and though there still exist some areas with room for improvement, I think the impetus isn't what it once was.

As for the ERA, it's a mixed bag. If you've seen the West Wing episode "17 People" one of the characters, a lawyer named Ainsley Hayes, makes the argument that it's insulting to assert that you need a law to state that both genders are equal, when such a thing should be very obvious.

I may well be attacking a minority of those who consider themselves feminists. But if I do so, it's because they are the loudest minority. The squeaky wheel if you will. Further, it's because as I and the original article I linked to have stated, there seems to be no truly coherent definition of feminism. If there is, it's entirely possible that I'd be fully on-board. But I have yet to see such a definition, so I can only react to those I've seen brandishing the label.