Material inequalities: are women and men equal now?
If you are a young woman you may feel that you have a lot of choice about what you do with your life. It probably seems like you will have more or less the same opportunities in life as your brothers and/or male friends. Young men reading this might feel that women can do whatever they want to these days and that talking about inequalities is out of date. Certainly the world has changed. Read some history or talk to your mothers and grandmothers and you will quickly appreciate that young women today are likely to have more education, better job opportunities and more independence than young women did forty or fifty years ago. Young women may be partly right in suggesting that they have much the same opportunities as men their age.
In terms of education young women are likely to have completed secondary school and probably did better than the boys. At university or college you are likely to see as many undergraduate women on campus as men, with women continuing to do slightly better. In the United
Kingdom, for example, six times more women enrolled in higher education in 2003/04 than in 1970/71, so that around 59 per cent of undergraduates are now women (Office for National Statistics, 2006: 38). While girls in wealthier nations are able to take advantage of at least a good basic education, in other areas of the world educational opportunity for girls can be limited. Non-formal, local and traditional forms of learning may exist in many places but formal westernized types of education are likely to bring greater status and social rewards. The amount of formal education varies greatly between different regions of Africa. Southern Africa has for some time demonstrated little difference between boys and girls in length of schooling. Early twenty-first century figures show boys getting 10.9 years and girls 10.4 years at school (African Development Bank, 2002:Table 1.8). However, in Western and Central Africa only 51 per cent of primary school age girls actually attend primary school compared to 59 per cent of boys. At secondary school this drops to just over one in five of secondary age girls attending, while one in four boys of secondary age attend (UNICEF, 2006: 121). India, on the whole, provides more education. Primary school is attended by 73 per cent of girls of primary school age, compared to 80 per cent for boys (UNICEF, 2006: 121). It has a strong formal educational tradition and, as with many western nations, women higher up the caste and class hierarchy tend to be well educated. In poorer families, however, girls will probably leave school fairly young, most likely to enter a marriage arranged for them. They will then become responsible for most of the domestic work in the home of their new parents-in-law. For such poorer families, manual work and the domestic support of that work may be crucial to survival and families need children to start bringing in money as soon as possible. But this does not explain why girls are expected to do the domestic work; that expectation is better understood in terms of a culture which values the welfare of the group and especially expects women to contribute to that group welfare rather than pursue individual goals. Thus caring roles at home are still promoted as the proper course for many less privileged women (Kodoth and Eapen, 2005; Mukhopadhyay and Seymour, 1994).
Among more privileged groups in the western world, university graduates of both sexes look forward to getting a ‘good’job at the end of their degree. However, the subjects they take in doing their degrees are likely to differ and, therefore, their job options will differ. Have a look around a sociology class — I bet there are more women than men. Try visiting an English or history lecture and you will probably find fewer men there. Then go over to a physics lecture to see if the men outnumber the women, and finally pop in to the engineering department where you may be able to count the women on one hand (e. g. see Department of Education, Science and Training, 2005: 32; Equal
Employment Opportunities Commission, 2006: 8; National Science Board, 2006). These gender differences in choice of subject will affect what sorts ofjobs graduates will be able to get. Although there are many good jobs that sociology and English graduates might end up with, it is not the same sort of direct route into high paying, high status work as studying engineering. The women who do engineering may not initially notice any difference between themselves and their male peers, but they may discover that the men in the class find it easier to get jobs than the women. Once in jobs it may become clear that the men are promoted ahead of women at a similar stage and with similar ability. Also women engineers may note that the men are not asked how they are going to combine a career with having a family. These are some of the factors in continuing pay gaps between women and men in science and engineering (Prokos and Padavic, 2005). Continuing beliefs about women’s responsibility for their families play a part in determining to what extent women participate in paid work.
In most of South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, women’s economic participation rate is only around 30 per cent, compared to around 45 per cent in OECD (high income) countries (World Bank, 2006).This means that in most cases women are less likely to have a paid job than men. Even where women now form a large portion of the workforce they continue to work in different jobs, under different conditions and generally receive less pay. Sociologists refer to the dividing up of work into jobs thought of as ‘men’s jobs’ and those thought of as ‘women’s jobs’ as the sexual division of labour or (the more recent term) the gendered division of labour. The vertical division of labour by gender means that women are rare in the higher positions within occupations. This is especially true of influential managerial positions. In the Fortune 500 (America’s top 500 companies) in 2005 only 16.4 per cent of all corporate officer (top management) positions were held by women. Over half of these companies had less than three women corporate officers in 2005 (Catalyst, 2006: 6, 9). The invisible barriers that seem to prevent women being promoted to upper management are referred to as ‘the glass ceiling’ (see Hymowitz and Schellhardt, 1986). Yet addressing and overcoming such barriers would not necessarily bring equality for all women because of the horizontal gender division of labour, which means that work is divided in gendered ways across occupations. This has obvious implications for how wealth is distributed between women and men.
Evidence indicates that women are poorer than men. They do not earn as much and generally have less access to the material rewards available in society. At the beginning of the twenty-first century in Western Europe, North America and Australasia, women earn around 75 to 90 per cent of the average man’s wage. World wide the figure drops so that
on a global level women earn around 60 per cent of the male average (Connell, 2002: 2; United Nations Statistics Division, 2005). Through a creative use of job titles, job descriptions and special ‘bonuses’ it is possible to evade equal pay legislation (where it exists) and to pay a man more than a woman who is, effectively, doing the same job. In poorer countries it is poverty rather than low pay that is the issue. The phrase ‘feminization of poverty’ was conjured up by the United Nations to refer to an apparent trend in which an increasing number of those living in poverty are women, and that poverty is growing more severe. The reasons for such a trend are complex and debated. They may range from the costs of women’s unpaid work, their related lack of educational and economic opportunities (including access to land and other resources), the rise of HIV/AIDS among women, and the ways in which globalization leads to new ways of exploiting women in developing countries (Barker, 2005).
Not everyone in developing countries is poor, and of course poverty exists in developed countries too. Women in developed and developing nations are more likely to be poor partly because of their caring responsibilities, which often make them reliant on social services. As these services are cut back women are often required to do more caring and yet there is less financial and other support available (Kehler, 2001). The feminization of poverty in wealthy nations may, however, be relative rather than absolute. Absolute poverty is about not being able to meet basic survival needs, for example not having enough food to eat. The most recent reliable statistics suggest that such poverty is still common in India, for example, where 36 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 were undernourished according to a 1998—99 survey (International Institute for Population Sciences and ORC Macro, 2000: 244). Relative poverty is more common in the West, where you may be able to eat, but do not have enough money to share in the other benefits your society has to offer. For example, you may not be able to afford a television or holidays; this makes you poor relative to those around you. And again it is mostly women who are poor, especially single mothers whether never married or divorced. When relationships break up it is usually the women who get custody of the children. Although welfare payments may offset some of the financial burdens women face after divorce, in most cases women are soon poorer than their ex-partners. Even where laws require a couple’s assets to be halved and men to pay maintenance, men may fail to pay; never married and divorced women’s earning opportunities are likely to be restricted by child care responsibilities, and their finances may be tight because they are bearing most of the cost of raising the children (for example, Uunk, 2004; Yamokoski and Keister, 2006).
The consequences of poverty for women range from the extreme case of starvation — or at very least severe ill health (Doyal, 2002) — to a
more general lack of control over their lives. Women’s lack of financial independence makes them vulnerable to the demands of their husbands, or other men with authority over them. When women have to rely on men to get what they need to survive they often do not have the luxury of saying no. In many nations, including wealthy ones, women lacking job skills and experience may be heavily reliant on men’s financial support. This may be a key reason why women feel unable to leave violent partners (Dobash and Dobash, 1992).Women’s poverty connects not only to sex and violence but is highly likely to constrain their choices about everything from the quality of their housing to what they eat. Where poverty is relative, attempts to feed and clothe children in the ‘best’ way may be funded by credit. Women take on much of this debt and may even hide it from male partners (where they are present). If this is the case, then women bear the stress of coping with debt payment, or trying to evade it when there is no money (Bridges and Disney, 2004; Parker, 1992). In addition, women’s responsibility within families often goes beyond dealing with a lack of finance.
The difficulties for women of trying to combine paid work with family responsibilities have been extensively documented (see for example, Hochschild, 2003). Women continue to do most of the work at home and face a number of other problems associated with family life. Even where families are relatively happy, women continue to do more than their share of household labour. By the1970s women had considerable equality compared with their position in the nineteenth century. Men have become more involved in family life, but Young and Willmott’s (1973) picture of the newly emerging ‘symmetrical family’ in which husband and wife perform similar work within the household seems overly optimistic. Ann Oakley’s groundbreaking (1974) research into housework contested the symmetrical family argument and she argued that both men and women still saw housework as women’s work. Her data suggest that men in the early 1970s did very little child care and less housework, with only a minority of husbands (15 per cent) involved to a high extent in housework. More recent studies (e. g. Crompton, 2005; Sullivan, 2000) suggest that there has been a barely perceptible rise in men’s involvement, and women still do around twice as much housework as men. This means that for women doing both paid and unpaid work, tiredness, ill health and depression are routine (Hochschild, 2003). Political rights have been seen as crucial for allowing women to make changes to this position.
The achievement of equal voting rights with men is taken to be one of the major indicators of advances towards equality for women. The first nation state in which women received the vote was New Zealand in 1893. The franchise was awarded to British women over 30 in 1918, though
they only got to vote on the same basis as men in 1928. In the United States women got the federal vote in 1920.Women in Switzerland could not vote until 1971. In Kuwait women were awarded the right to vote in 2005 (Inter-parliamentary Union, 2006). However, voting involves fairly limited political participation. Just having the vote does not guarantee women much influence within the decision-making processes in their society. There continues to be a lack of women in public politics and especially within parliament. Though not all parliaments are especially influential in key decision making, nationally or globally, female membership of them gives some indication of women’s status. Rwanda is presently top of the list, as its lower house has very close to 50 per cent women. Nordic countries have long been the democratic nations with the highest proportion of women in parliament, and women currently fill around 40 per cent of their seats. The United Kingdom’s parliament is less impressive with around 20 per cent of its members being women, although when a devolved Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 around 37 per cent of its seats were taken by women. The United States does not do well in this list, with only just over 15 per cent of its lower house seats being filled by women. This puts it below the world average of around 16 per cent of parliamentary seats being occupied by women. A handful of Arab nations and Pacific island states have no women representatives (Inter-parliamentary Union, 2006). There are questions, however, as to whether having more women in parliament necessarily means more attention to issues concerning women. This depends on believing that women will bring new ideas into decision making that will better encompass women’s needs. Behind this is a belief that ideas or attitudes to women can and should be changed.
Though there are powerful points to be made about the continuance of gender inequalities, much of the way in which these have been discussed so far tends to cast women as victims of large social processes. This ignores privileged groups of women and underprivileged groups of men. Though women in many situations may lack control over their own lives, this does not mean they are totally without choices, or completely lacking in power to bring about change. The ability to make choices and changes is referred to as agency. Materialism has been criticized for ignoring agency because of its determinist tendencies. This means that it is criticized for the way in which its focus on material factors such as economic resources tends to assume that these entirely determine how people live their lives. What is missing here, according to the critics, such as post-structuralists (see Chapter 4), is an attempt to understand what kind of meanings people give to their own actions. In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand the role of ideas in the social construction of gender.