A British politician (a member of the Opposition) recently dismissed David Cameron’s government’s recent cabinet reshuffle as no more than a “sprinkling of women”, despite the British government’s stated aim of wanting to make politics less macho. But Britain isn’t the only villain of the piece when it comes to presiding over startling gender inequalities: there were accusations of tokenism in Australia too, following the appointment of the sole female politician to the country’s cabinet. In fact, in most countries, women are grossly underrepresented in government cabinets. Only around 20 heads of national governments are of the female sex. These are facts. And more facts abound: statistics regarding the parlous state of the gender gap in the workplace fill the columns of our newspapers. Only recently did I read a report which revealed that women’s earnings fall behind men by an average of Â£9,000. Men earn roughly a third more than women overall: the average salary for a man in full-time work is around Â£37,000; by contrast, for a woman in full-time work, the average salary is around Â£27,991. The same report even found a pay gap in retirement: male pensioners live on an average net income of Â£209 per week, compared with Â£194 for women. Of course, pay is not the only area where we see a gender gap. Have a look at UK website Feminista, which lists point by point the shocking state of the gender inequality in a range of areas. We can be confident that many of the statistics we read about are facts, for example, few would dispute that women make up less than 5 percent of CEOs and less than 15 percent of execs in Fortune 500 companies.
Given that women make up half of the population it seems a tad unfair that such gender disparities exist. Still, does the mere existence of a gender gap point to the fairer sex being treated unfairly? What’s fact, and what’s fiction? Read on for a summary of three observations about the gender gap that may be more fiction than fact – or at least give you pause for thought.
1. Women in Government Are No More Than ‘Window Dressing’
Although a popular view, this is not a true picture of women in government, according to a recent paper. The authors of the paper contrasted the experiences (academic background, political connections, previous cabinet positions held ) and successes (quantity of bills presented, length of time in office and whether the tenure ended with a sacking or “forced resignation”) of male and female politicians in five countries: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and the United States. The authors posited that if women were seen as unimportant and given unimportant portfolios to manage, or if women were overlooked by the president or prime minister, they would initiate fewer bills than men and they would be easier to dismiss than men. Furthermore, if women were appointed as merely ‘window dressing’ they would not be in their positions for very long. If women were deemed much less likely to succeed than their male counterparts, they would indeed be treated as tokens. But the authors found little evidence of tokenism in any of the five countries they analysed. And although women did initiate fewer bills compared to their male counterparts, they were found to be equally as likely to succeed. Women, the authors reason, are treated fairly, but it is the scarcity of women in high political office that is the real problem.
2. Women Don’t Want the Top Jobs
There may be some truth in this. Research from the Harvard Business School suggests that women don’t actually want the top jobs. Or more precisely, women do not want the top jobs to the exclusion of everything else. Women interpret success differently to men, the researchers argue, adding that “only a small proportion of women’s goals were related to power.” Women are less motivated by power, and they perceive greater conflicts between career advancement and other goals compared to men: in a separate study, when asked to visualise a promotion in their current workplace, women associated the promotion with more negative outcomes, for example, sacrifice and extra responsibility. Still another study conducted by the same researchers revealed that although there is little difference between the career levels men and women believe they can attain, men target higher levels than women do.
The Harvard findings add a further nuance to the already complex discussions about gender inequalities, a discussion which has cited institutional barriers (for example, the prevailing, ‘institutional’ perception that women are less competent than men in leaderships means that they are less likely to be treated as leaders) and differences in makeup (women don’t have the dominant, aggressive traits needed to make it in the cut-throat world of business, the argument goes) as being the main reasons for gender disparities in the workplace. Women simply don’t want the top positions, this latest study suggests. But perhaps it should be: some women don’t want the top positions: there’s a real possibility of research such as this being levied at the expense of understanding real barriers to gender inequality, of which there are several – for example, there have been several reported cases of women being discriminated against on returning to work after having a baby, and of business owners reluctant to employ a woman of child-bearing age. It is also important that research such as this is not seized upon as a threat to the prevailing narrative that women are discriminated against simply because they are women (true in far too many cases) – one explanation of gender disparity does not negate others.
3. Women Just Don’t Try Hard Enough Or Aren’t Good Enough
If only all women were like Angela Merkel they would make it to the top, goes this argument. Therefore, forget all talk about measures to get women to the top because that would be discriminatory: only those who are good enough/try hard enough should get to the top. Tempted to believe this argument? On face value, it sounds plausible, doesn’t, until you care to look for hard evidence to support the theory. This paradigm fails to explain why the majority of Japanese women in the workplace, for example, don’t try hard enough or aren’t good enough (just over 3 percent of senior government posts in Japan are occupied by females).
If anything this sorry state of affairs underscores the value of having quotas, although it remains to be seen whether we in the UK can get over the notion that it is beneath our dignity to have quotas. If quotas don’t work then perhaps measures to get more men to do the housework would be required: according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Japanese men spend a meagre 24 minutes per day on housework; by contrast, German men spend up to an hour a day on housework.
What’s your take on the gender equality discussion? Do you buy into any of the arguments described in this post? Or do you, like me, believe that the crux of the debate –for women to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential -is best served by a willingness to look at all factors implicated in the debate on gender inequality, including the more nuanced ones, and not just the obvious ones that are hiding in plain sight.
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