Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tweeting about Sexism

Last night I had an interesting twitter conversation with @RatiaVox. I tried to storify it for this post, but for some reason Storify makes it hard for you to search for your own tweets. Anyway, I will try to summarize the conversation.

It started when I wrote:

After some back and forth over how big the wage gap actually is, RatiaVox wrote:

I didn't mean that last tweet to be as sarcastic is it probably sounds. We are running into the limitations of Twitter here - it's often hard to express yourself unambiguously in 140 characters. Here's what I'm trying to get at. I fully support the principle of equal pay for equal work. But in practice, there is always going to statistical fluctuations (probably larger than 1%), and there are going to be factors that are not necessarily connected with overt sexism.

For example, statistically speaking, women and men give work and family different priorities. The man is expected to be the breadwinner and bring home the bacon at all costs, while the woman is expected to be the carer and nurturer at the cost of her career. But it's not simply a question of gender roles imposed from outside - individual preferences are also important. Some women simply prefer to be the carer rather than the breadwinner. Some men would be quite happy to stay at home with the kids while the woman supports the family.

But because of societal expectations, it seems to me that women often have more flexibility than men when it comes to setting trade-offs between family and career. It would be nice if everyone's individual preferences could be accomodated as far as possible. Nobody, man or woman, should be shamed for his/her choice, whether it is to put family first or career first, or any intermediate balance between the two. I think giving more flexibility and support to everyone for their individual choices would help to reduce the wage gap.

Here's another factor, which I didn't get a chance to bring up last night. In many white-collar jobs, when you get an offer, you are expected to negotiate your compensation package, and how well you do is a huge factor in the variation in salaries. Now, I can see how women might be statistically less likely to push hard for a higher salary, and end up with less.

Again, it's about societal attitudes. Sad to say, when a woman is assertive in the same way as a man, she tends to be seen as pushy and bitchy. Society tends to encourage men but discourage women from standing up for themselves. It's unfair to women, of course. But how can you fix it? There is no single person you can point to as being to blame, no law you can pass to fix the problem overnight.

Yet another factor is that (once again, statistically speaking) there are certain jobs that women are less attracted to than men. Some examples include jobs that are dangerous, or require physical strength. And some workplaces just aren't welcoming to women:
And as long as women rather than men give birth, there will be an impact on wages that is very hard to equalize.

I hope it's clear that I'm not seeking to justify inequality, but to understand the factors that give rise to it - actual misogyny is only one. Economies are messy, chaotic systems, and even in a centralized command-and-control economy, let alone a capitalist one, it would be very hard to engineer inequality out of existence. How far do you go before it becomes unjust and heavy-handed? My own viewpoint is that you should fight to give every individual equal opportunity, regardless of gender, and keep monitoring the statistics, but don't assume that statistical inequality can only be the result of deliberate ill-will. Some of it is due to biological differences, some to individual choices, and some is due to societal attitudes which are deeply ingrained, and hard (and slow) to change - which of course isn't an excuse for not trying. Just realize that there aren't always easy answers and quick fixes.

One thing I changed my mind about as a result of this conversation is my initial assertion that there is no institutionalized misogyny in the US. I was thinking too narrowly in terms of workplace discrimination, which now has laws against it that are quite vigorously enforced. There are other factors such as divorce courts and discrepancies in sentencing for crimes, where (it seems to me) the deck may if anything be stacked against men, but which I won't go into now. But as RatiaVox rightly reminded me, abortion rights are under siege and there is a great deal of work to be done in terms of women's health rights.
There are powerful people in this country who harbor misogynistic attitudes and are using their power to give their attitudes the force of law. When you're a woman and you know that the government can step in and basically take control of your body, forcing you to give birth regardless of your wishes or circumstances, it certainly looks like institutionalized misogyny. My only reservation is that I don't think it's a monolithic situation of all men vs. all women. I know nobody claimed that, but that's the image which the term "institutionalized misogyny", rightly or wrongly, tends to conjure up in my mind.

The awful Cathrynn Brown who was in the news recently is one of many women trying to legislate backward anti-woman attitudes. Conversely there are many men fighting alongside women for their rights, and I would hope to be counted as one. It seems to me that the growth of the internet and the decline of religion is our best hope in the long run for overcoming conservative and theocratic attitudes which hold women back.

I want to give kudos to RatiaVox for never calling me personally a misogynist, and for being genuinely interested in understanding my viewpoint rather than strawmanning me. I'm interested in men's rights issues but I don't label myself an MRA - I'd rather be known as a humanist that a feminist or masculinist. (Quite frankly the overt misogyny of some guys in the men's rights boards turns me off - it seems like the opposite side of the coin relative to some of the more misandric feminists.) But it's good that a feminist and a guy like me can have an amicable and productive discussion on hot button issues.

Thanks again to RatiaVox for an interesting and enjoyable conversation!

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