March 8 was International Women’s Day, a day when (largely Western) society can come together to reflect on the advances made towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, and identify plans to pursue these ideals further.
(March 8 is also International Pancake-Flipping Day, but this fact often gets lost in the day’s priority issue. Perhaps the celebration of pancakes could instead replace International Humbug Day?)
I consider myself a feminist, which is an interesting position for an Australian male to be in. Some Aussie blokes look down on the concept of male feminism, identifying the notion with other stereotypically ‘weak’ traits such as drinking low-carb beer, excusing yourself after burping, and exfoliating. Meanwhile, ironically, some feminists (typically the more hardcore radical or separatist feminists) share this dislike of males who believe in gender equality, on the grounds that all men are ingrained in the ‘problem’.
But in general, these are minorities. And in general, most Australians (male or female) believe in equal rights, equal pay, and an end to sexism in our society. These are good things. We have a female Prime Minister, a female Governor-General, a female head of our largest bank, and a woman in the position of Australia’s richest individual (though this is likely to change with our variable resource prices). We’re making some serious progress.
On a global scale, though, things are far from clear. Particularly in the developing world, efforts to promote gender equality have been poor, to say the least. In fact, it’s by far and away the least improved of the Millennium Development Goals. And adding to these woes is the fact that UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, recently got graded the lowest rank in terms of value and effectiveness of aid funding out of all multilateral aid organisations, according to the UK’s foreign assistance department.
So there’s work to be done, and initiatives such as International Women’s Day are both positive and needed. And, indeed, there was a lot of publicity yesterday in the international media, including many news articles, reports and special pieces in our own Australian news services. Raising awareness, sparking concerns, shocking people into action – who can argue with that?
This is where I take off my postmodern feminist hat (incidentally, I wonder what one would look like?) and ruffle some feathers. Not only are some of the stats being brandished around dubious to say the least, and offer little to help the cause, but some of the more common quotes, it seems, could even be retarding progress.
Take, for example, news.com.au, Australia’s premier online news source. Each article for International Women’s Day (such as this one) was headed with a FactBox of shocking statistics about the state of gender equality in our world. And I shouldn’t single out News as, following a little research, it turns out these statistics are dished out like candy across numerous media outlets. The problem is, not only are some of them unbelievable, but I’m almost certain they’re wrong. And as far as raising awareness goes, the only awareness this will achieve is making people doubt the authenticity and integrity of the feminist movement.
Don’t get me wrong; some of them (quirkily, mainly on the left hand side of the box) are both confronting and accurate. For instance, the fact that women in developing countries account for over 60 per cent of farming is quite unexpected, but backed up by the facts. (The statistic is actually recorded as “60-80%, which is quite a ridiculous range for a figure and detracts from its believability). The statistic that, on average, a woman dies every minute due to preventable birthing complications is deeply moving and should (I hope) provoke some positive action. These two alone, perhaps with the easily verified fact that only 13 of the world’s largest 500 companies have a female CEO, would have been sufficient to really hammer the point home.
But then things start to get a little hazy.
For instance, what are we to make of the statistic that “66 per cent of the world’s work is done by women”? On the face of it, this figure seems so unbelievable that I decided to do a little research. In fact, one might well wonder how on earth anyone could even compute such a statistic. The article quotes UNICEF as its data source, but unfortunately a visit to its website sheds no light on the matter. In fact, while this statistic is perhaps the most commonly quoted gender figure (and became part of the informal feminist slogan for the Decade of Women), it’s surprisingly difficult to track down its source.
Eventually I got there, and discovered that the statistic is something of an ‘educated estimate’ by Richard H. Robbins in his book Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, published in 1999. Moreover, the statistic includes uncompensated household labour (such as rearing children, housework, looking after aged parents, and tending to the veggie garden). I’m not saying that these things shouldn’t be included as labour – they absolutely should – but I think this should be made clear if the point being made is to be given any degree of credibility.
Then we come to the second, and perhaps even more baffling, piece of gender trivia. “Australian women in full-time paid work earn 18 per cent less on average than men.” I agree that this is shocking and completely unacceptable, and the fact that this has been incorrectly ‘rounded up’ from the actual official figure of 17 per cent is neither here nor there – the point is made. But the quote then continues, “[This] equals $1 million less over a lifetime.”
This seems a little unbelievable to me, but let’s try and work it out. If $1 million equates to 18 per cent of the total, then the average full-time employed Australian male’s lifetime earnings would be $5,555,556. And for women, $4,555,556. According to the ABS, the average full-time Australian employee earns about $68,000 a year, so for this to be correct (and this is of course excluding tax), the average Australian would have to work full-time for between 67 and 82 years. Given our retirement age is still 65, this seems fairly unlikely (some would say, impossible). If we include tax into the equation to get a more realistic view of disposable income, we end up with an average work lifespan of between 79 and 103 years. If we include the fact that women in Australia live longer than men, then again…well, you get the idea.
That’s not to say these issues aren’t important – they absolutely are. But let’s not get carried away. If we’re going to encourage real change in this area, we need to show the same professionalism, the same economic rigour and the same dedicated analysis that is expected in comparable policy areas. Rattling off hysterical but blatantly dubious ‘coffeehouse’ statistics does the cause no good whatsoever.
Instead, the focus, at least in developed countries, should be on cultural change. For the most part, Australia has done remarkably well in instilling a wide-ranging belief of gender equality with regards to pay, legal rights and positions of authority. (Arguably, we have been less successful in changing perceptions with regard to domestic violence, but that’s another matter.)
However, the concept of the woman in the household being the default choice to do the unpaid family labour, such as bringing up the kids, remains. Our own Prime Minister ‘sacrificed’ having children in her lifetime in order to further her career towards the top job – but should this really be the case? Why is it not more accepted in society (by either gender) that families have the option of a ‘househusband’? Why is the notion of maternal rearing so ingrained in society that it affects women’s careers, and extends as far as the courts in the guise of custody?
Food for thought.
The chess world is an interesting example of a ‘corporate ladder’ of sorts where sexism really shouldn’t play a role. Women’s place on the ELO scale (compare this with a pay scale) is not determined by a “boy’s club” at the top, nor by a board of directors, nor by societal norms. It’s a purely performance-based system, providing rankings that are effectively gender-neutral. Indeed, some of the world’s top female players have resolved never to play in female-only events, considering that such divisions only result in introducing sexism into an otherwise neutral arena. And women have been remarkably successful in cutting through the facade of male domination in the ultimate intellectual sport. (For a more detailed dissertation on this, see Jennifer Shahade’s excellent academic book, “Chess Bitch”.)
So the million dollar question remains, why are there so few women at the top of the chess world?
Statistically, the question should really be asking why there are so few women in chess, as, proportionally, women’s performance in chess is very respectable. And this latter question, I feel, has a lot to do with these more general cultural perceptions. Women are perceived to have an obligation to child-rearing and matters of the household; a career in chess does not compute with this stereotype. And these gender beliefs are even more pronounced in those countries in which chess is most popular and a chess career most likely: Eastern Europe, India, and China.
More food, more thought.
Having gotten far too heated about this subject (and easily breaking my record for longest post), I’ll leave you with a curious fact that belies my passion for the gender equality cause: my record in chess against women, as compared to men of equal ratings, is unbelievably poor. Any theories?