Saturday, November 3, 2007

Zeno's Paradox of Gender Equality

The New York Times had a feature last Thursday on the latest on the "why aren't women getting anywhere" business. It's a report, titled "Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don't." Basically -- shocker -- women can't win no matter what.

If you're nice, you're a pushover. If you're not nice, you're "bitchy." If you're a woman and you get mad at work, you're seen as "out of control"; if you're a man and you get mad at work, you're seen as effective and with-it. This was established showing videos of the same exact scene and just switching up the sex of the actor.

The qualities valued in the workplace, the report says, vary all over the world, but whatever qualities are valued, people seem to think it's those qualities women are lacking.

And of course, if you look frumpy, bad news, but if you look sexy, well, just forget it.

Things like this always remind me of how relatively fragmented life feels from the female inside. George Clooney is sexy, rich, mature, powerful, and excellent marriage material. But to be sexy for a woman is to be young and therefore probably powerless; to be excellent marriage material for a woman is to be nurturing and soft, and to care about the home -- hardly the qualities that lead to wealth.

I used to wonder how small sexist behaviors could add up to the striking sex differences in positions of power, especially after so much time has elapsed. Now that so many of my friends have children, one answer is becoming apparent to me.

If you think about family life -- even without kids, but especially with them -- there's actually a lot of work to do to make it good. There's shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, it's a huge amount of time.

Who is going to do all this family-work? It seems as though the early feminists thought that family-work could simply be divided in half: each partner does his or her share.

But in a capitalist competitive system like the one we've set up, anyone doing a full half of the family-work is at a pretty serious disadvantage with respect to anyone doing less-than-half. So a family likely does best for itself financially when one person does more of the family-work and one person does less. I bet in lots of cases -- jobs that require and reward long, long hours of work -- the difference is dramatic.

So there's great pressure to divide the work less-than-evenly. And if you're going to divide the work less-than-evenly, you're probably going to want the one who earns more to be the one doing less family-work. You add up a million small sexist behaviors, and what do you get? The man is almost always going to be the one who earns more.

This is how small behaviors translate into huge sex differences. Millions of families, making the same cost-benefit analysis, and ending up with the obvious solution: a man who works hard at some hard job and a woman who works less hard at a less hard job and also makes dinner.

Since I work in a university, I'm surrounded by academics, who have it relatively easy on these matters -- even though we work hard, our time is flexible. But the problem in academia, of course, is finding jobs in the same location. And here the same thing plays out. Over and over you see it: Mr. X has a job offer from Great Research University in Perfect Location, Ms. X has one from Slightly Less Good University in Slightly Less Perfect Location. Where do you think they'll go?

You know where they'll go. And you know what Ms. X will do when they get there: she'll teach a few classes, work part time, and make dinner.

It's nobody's fault. But it's a part of the explanation of how small differences in hiring, promotion, and so on, translate into crazy shit like women being still only 19 percent of full professors at doctoral universities, but 57 percent of lecturers and instructors.

What is someone's fault, and what pissed me off on Thursday, was that the Times story was in the god-damn Styles section. Uh, hello?


Sid said...

I agree. But isn't it also true that, even in our modern world, lots and lots women continue to want above all to be mothers? For men, not so much. And it is just plain hard to succeed in the capitalist workplace and as a parent at home. Career or family? It's a choice, not a paradox. But thank progress the choice is there.

Captain Colossal said...

But the fact that so many women want above all to be mothers strikes me as probably related to centuries of sexist visions of what a woman is supposed to be. And so it's only a free choice in some regards.

Noko Marie said...

Hi Sid,
It's definitely true that lots and lots of women continue to want to be mothers, in the sense of wanting to have children. But I don't know about "above all" -- it doesn't seem to me that they wouldn't prefer having children and having a spouse who does half the work so they can work too. This is how my female colleagues with kids seem to prefer it.

If you mean that since it's women who want children it's women who should shoulder the main burden of having them, I'm not sure. I mean, if, say, most people never had kids at all, we'd be slightly up a creek with respect to keeping society going. So it's in everyone's interest for people to have kids.

Anyway, I'm with you on thanking progress that there is a choice! I myself have embraced this choice and opted not to have any. Still, there's a fair amount of this work to do even without kids.

And you're right that it's not really a paradox - I was just lamely trying to be funny!

Sid said...

What you're saying strikes me as condescending to women today. Sure, it has been centuries of blah, blah, blah. But women today make their own choices. If any adult wants to put more effort into being a good parent than into being a good employee, that's a choice for them to make--regardless of how asinine one thinks making that particular choice is.

Sid said...


There's no question that most women would prefer to have children and a husband who shoulders at least half the burden. But despite the fact that most women never meet that guy, they still go ahead and have children, knowing full well who is going to do the parenting and who is going to do the breadwinning. Not having children at all rarely ever seems to be an option. That's what I mean by "above all."

I don't mean it's women who want children and I also don't mean that it's women who should shoulder the burden of parenting. What I do mean is that it is women who should avoid having kids if their professional lives matter to them.

It is unlikely men are ever going to wholeheartedly embrace fatherhood and domestic life. Some have, sure. But it's rare. And it's even more rare to find a women who would actually find that sort of man attractive.

Captain Colossal said...

Do you have statistics on that last point?