Tuesday, July 27, 2010

G. The Level Playing Field?

This is a post I never quite completed. It belongs to my feminism series but I couldn't maintain the tone and approach of that series and so I set the post aside.

Yet the point I wanted to make is important. It has to do with the general idea that all societal playing fields are now level. Nothing stops women from excelling if they wished to do so, nothing!

Discriminatory laws have been abolished, discriminatory institutions have changed (except for, er, many religious institutions and the armed forces), and if women still experience discrimination they should just sue!

Preferably under a Democratic administration. But really, such suits are unnecessary because the playing fields already are level (if not slanted to favor women) and the reason women earn less, for instance, is because they choose to do so.

I was channeling both my inner Independent Women's Forum gal (IWF is an anti-feminist ladies' auxiliary of male wingnuttery) and the MRA guyz there. They both argue that women have only themselves to blame if they earn less, on average, than men do, because that is a consequence of their own poor choices.

Some of those choices are based in just women's general desire to avoid hard work and risky occupations, tell the MRA guys. Because what's really behind men's higher average earnings are those relatively few men who build skyscrapers. Yup.

Some choices are based on women's desire to have children, tell the IWF gals. Of course children in this view benefit nobody but the woman who has them so choosing to have children is just like choosing an ice-cream flavor! No need for societal interest in such decisions.

All this is based on the argument that the playing fields are already level or even slanted to favor women. But let's take a closer look at the major playing field most of us have to enter: The labor market.

Is that playing field level? Note that the way workers are treated in the labor markets, even today, is based on an implicit assumption that every worker is primarily a worker. He (and it used to be "he") is assumed to have someone at home who cooks for hims, does his laundry, minds his children and takes care of his elderly and/or ailing relatives: a stay-at-home spouse. But all that maintenance work is the traditional chore of women, something women are responsible for.

A labor market which does not offer proper parental leave or other similar arrangements is not a level playing field when societal gender roles are unequal.

None of this means that women wouldn't make choices. Men make choices, too, including, for some, the choice of entering a dangerous occupation because it pays more. But these choices are always carried out under constraints. And the general labor market constraints are not identical for men and women even in the absence of any gender discrimination.

Which brings me to an analysis of one particular labor market: traditional tough-guy blue-collar occupations. The usual (and statistically incorrect) MRA argument is that men earn more because of those jobs which also have a high mortality rate. If women really walked the talk of equality they'd all sign up to build skyscrapers in New York!

Just imagine signing up for one of those jobs. It's well known that women entering these kinds of jobs suffer form an unusually high level of sexual harassment of an especially nasty type (such as finding a used condom inside your lunch sandwich). Not all men practice such harassment, of course, but a few bad apples can spoil a female worker's whole day, not to mention the more severe problems of not being accepted into the team when job-security may be dependent on that very fact.

Anyone doubting that this would pose an additional hurdle for women entering a particular occupation are either much tougher than I am (congrats and welcome to the divinity circles) or have never been the only woman in a job like that.

So the playing fields are not necessarily level, even in countries where the laws may have become mostly gender-neutral.