This is a topic that I am approaching with much trepidation, but is on my mind at the moment after listening to an interesting talk by feminist writer/commentator Chloe Angyal regarding rom-coms and what it can teach us about life and especially sexual dynamics. In a nutshell: recent rom-coms have featured a lot of male nudity (bear with me here), and this speaks to a broader cultural shift in which men are increasingly vulnerable and women are increasingly in control.*
Of course, any talk of the “End of Men” must be taken with a grain of salt, given the overwhelming presence of men in representative government (consider the recent kerfuffle over Tony Abbott’s cabinet) and other positions of influence, such as Fortune 500 CEOs and university faculty members. Indeed, the “gender gap” between men and women in terms of pay and representation in a multitude of industries is a key concern for feminists.
After Chloe’s talk, a friend of mine told me that he believed in equal representation — that there should be just as many women as men in positions of power (this is the definition of gender quality I will be using for the rest of this post). I disagreed with the practicality of this notion and murmured something about biological differences, but couldn’t come up with anything on the spot. Now that I’ve spent some more time thinking, I want to critically examine this idea of gender equality.
By the way, I want to preface all this by saying that of course I recognise the many injustices faced by women historically and presently, and I fully support efforts to rectify them. However, that’s different to the utopian view of gender equality. In my opinion it is not only impractical, but also undesirable.
Let’s start with some incontrovertible truths.
- Women are fertile and can attract the most desirable men within a finite window of time.
- Women are physically and psychologically equipped to be the best nurturers of their children.**
This biological reality is not pertinent early on. All throughout school, university and even the start of working life, equality of representation is possible because the biological imperative to meet a desirable partner and have children is not as keenly felt. Indeed, in traditionally prestigious fields like law and medicine, at many institutions there are now more women studying them than men.
As (Western) women gained more financial independence and as fertility treatment advanced in leaps and bounds, the biological imperative has been pushed back more and more. However, it still exists. Women who want to have children know they cannot put it off forever. Most mothers feel a maternal pull towards their children and are loath to spend extended periods of time away from them.
This is completely natural and understandable. And this is why parental leave is justifiably recognised as a crucial moderating force in the workplace — it allows women to fulfil their biological imperative without completely shafting their employment prospects. However, parental leave alone is not going to make things equal.
Two questions arise: How far should we (as a society) go to realise this goal? And what are the practical implications for women?
Here is another incontrovertible truth: life is about tradeoffs. If you want to get good at anything, you have to spend time and effort that could go toward other things. Working overseas sounds really tempting, until you realise that it entails being separated from friends and family for long stretches of time. You know where I am going with this.
Women can’t have it all. They have to make life choices based on their life priorities.
Many women make family their priority, so they subordinate career progression. This is one of the big reasons for the very stark statistics that we see. But what’s the alternative?
To achieve equal representation in government, company boards, etc, it means that a lot more women than is the case today must prioritise their own career advancement over bearing children. Now, some women willingly (as far as we can publicly tell…) remain childless and achieve great things. Others seemingly achieve incredible success while raising children at the same time. But this invariably happens through a combination of internal will and external support that do not apply to 99.99+% of the female population — they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I would wager that far more common are women who would love to pursue a successful career, but make the sometimes painful decision to “opt out” because they cannot prioritise it above motherhood.
The bottom line
The question of priorities is a deeply personal one. I admire women who make child-rearing their priority. Our society is much better for it. I also admire strong women who contribute to the political and corporate world in ways that men cannot. Either way, both are making sacrifices and tradeoffs.
Ultimately, my own view (ie, a moral and political one) comes down to what I consider to be more valuable on balance. I think that it is better for society that more children are raised by their mothers (ideally in a two-parent home) — especially in their formative early years — than to have a society where more women prioritise their career above all else, delay or give up having children, or otherwise be a guilty/stressed part-time mother.
You may not agree with my weighting, but this is what it comes down to. There’s a lot more work to be done in changing workplace practices and societal attitudes and so forth,*** but there’s only so far they can go. Being a politician or a captain of industry or a professor, etc, is unforgiving, relentless work. They can become more female-friendly, but they will never be fully compatible with a woman’s biological imperative. That’s just the way it is unfortunately.
The gender gap is as much a manifestation of biological realities and personal choices as it is about oppressive, misogynistic social structures. Gender equality is not going to occur in a vacuum. I think it is important for advocates to recognise and wrestle with this, not just giving full-throated support to a nice notion in the abstract that actually comes with significant real-world implications.
* Chloe also rightly points out that rom-coms almost never feature same-sex relationships. They’re not addressed in this post either; I leave them out not out of malice but rather ignorance — I don’t think that I’m qualified to write about them.
** Take this sentence at face value. I am not trying to insinuate anything else (eg, that fathers are less or not important).
*** For some great examples, check out Anne-Marie Slaughter’s thought-provoking article in The Atlantic.