23 Jun 2009

Pseudo-science and justifications of sexism

I'm currently reading Susan Pinker's book The Sexual Paradox, which attempts to explain the continuing disparities between the achievements of the genders. I'm approaching the book with caution, as I'm still not convinced that it isn't simply an apology for sexism along the lines of Christina Hoff Sommers' feminist-bashing 'Who Stole Feminism?'. But unlike CHS's straightforward, hackneyed line of 'these stroppy wimmin have emasculated men, damaged children, and brought unhappiness upon themselves - back to the kitchen with you, unreasonable harlots', Pinker's premise is a bit more credible. She examines the idea that by using the male as 'the standard', and then expecting the female to simply imitate that standard, we're painting a skewed picture of equality that's doomed to fail. Just because they are presented with the same opportunities, she argues, does not mean women are going to take those opportunities to automatically behave like men. Nor is it necessarily a good idea to attempt to emulate the sex that dies earlier, is more likely to suffer heart problems, alcoholism, more prone to commit suicide, more likely to have learning difficulties etc. Pinker does a great job of making us re-examine the idea that men have been able to dominate women previously because men are/were somehow superior - they're definitely not, and in physical, psychological and social terms are often seriously disadvantaged. What allowed them to subordinate women for so long is setting up social structures that portrayed the male as ideal, discarded the female as second best, and told us all this was 'natural', what God intended, etck etck. A clever trick, for sure.

However, where I begin to chomp at the bit is Pinker's assertion that equality has been achieved, at least in the Western world, therefore we can now start drawing conclusions that wimmin simply aren't that interested in boardrooms or Physics laboratories, cos, dammit, they've had long enough to get in there, and their presence is still minimal! Her assumption seems to be that thirty years of raised consciousness and anti-discrimination laws is ample time for the female sex to have risen up and penetrated the City, the sciences, engineering, the building trade, the fire services, aviation and so on. If we find that women are still inadequately represented in these areas, Pinker states, it's because women are choosing not to enter them. She then interprets this as evidence that women are just different and want different things. "Even with more choices," she states, "women still cluster in certain occupations [despite the fact that] most formerly male dominions have made significant investments to recruit women."

Can't help but meet the latter statement with a very sardonic OH REALLY? For every well-meaning programme of affirmative action, for every workplace that prides itself on having dispensed with girlie calendars and visits to strip clubs, there are respected, established industries practising outrageous sexism and pretty much getting away with it. Over the weekend I met up with a male friend who's a young lawyer. He works at an established London law firm which recruits trainees annually, and mentioned this year's 'crop', 8 candidates of which 3 were female. So far, not too bad. Then he dropped the bomb. "They asked all of the girls when they intended to get pregnant." My jaw literally hit the floor. "Are they allowed to ask that?" I gasped. "Of course not," my friend snorted. But the interviewers obviously felt significantly protected to proceed with this illegal and outrageous line of questioning, probably banking on the notion that the young, eager-to-please trainees weren't going to jeopardise their careers by slapping a lawsuit on their potential employer. Unfortunately, my friend wasn't party to how the girls responded - I mischievously suggested that the appropriate response might be to spread one's legs and shout 'How about now, sir?. A disgusting question deserves a disgusting answer, right? Smut aside though, it's a pretty depressing confirmation that however much the likes of Susan Pinker muddy the waters with notions of gender difference, what holds women back in the workplace cannot simply be put down to them making 'different choices' on an otherwise level playing field. The fact an employer felt they could get away with quizzing women on their reproductive intentions shows that established, respected companies still remain reluctant to recruit females, see them as an 'investment risk', and demand that those they do bestow the honour of a job upon, make far greater sacrifices than their male counterparts would ever be asked to make. So much for 'choice'.

My friend and I speculated upon whether the likes of myself would be in with an advantage - assuming I deigned to answer the offensive question, rather than punching the interviewer and walking out - as I am one of the minority of women who do not want to have children, ever. However, we assumed that if an individual is retrogressive enough to see women as nothing but wombs on legs, they probably won't believe one of these funny creatures who states she intends to ignore nature's intentions for her. We decided that the (old, white, male) interviewer would probably pat me on the head, tell me I'd change my mind soon enough, and make a comment about 'young fillies' who 'can't wait to get sprogged up'. I can laugh, because I have no interest in ever trying to penetrate such workplaces (is this me being a 'typical woman' and deliberately choosing a non-competitive, caring job? Well, I don't know. I want to be a writer. Competitive? Yes. Caring? Pchah.) However, the thought that other girls my age are being humiliated and interrogated in such a blatant manner about irrelevant, personal matters, by those who know full well they are behaving illegally but are protected by a culture of fear and silence, demonstrates how far we still have to go. Let's call it a level playing field when men are asked in job interviews what they intend to do with their willies in the next decade, shall we?

I was also going to detail how my friend's pregnant wife was pressured into replacing her sick leave with maternity leave when she took time off her job as a teaching assistant due to severe pregnancy complications. And how, when she went to talk to a teacher about her concerns, was accused of taking the job 'knowing all along you were going to get pregnant'. However, I think that may just be too much depressing news for one day. Rest assured that this matter, at least, is under investigation - but god help those without lawyer spouses, who are caught between swallowing this kind of hateful treatment, or complaining and losing their income.

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