Gender Equality

'Whenever has it been the custom for men and women to dine together?'

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'Stuff Every Husband Should Know' is the name given a book I picked at random in a bookstore during a recent trip abroad – reading silly prescripts is a real guilty pleasure, especially when they are built upon threadbare stereotypes of the woman-man relationship. “Everything is your fault. Learn to embrace this,” the author instructs husbands, who are advised to serve breakfast often to their wives in bed, not to scrimp on such obliging phrases as “What can I do for you, honey?” and “I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry,” and to forget forever such loaded phrases as “What did you do to your hair?!” “Have you put on weight?” and “My mother was right!”

It is a fact that well-established, traditional stereotypes about the relationship between men and women radically changed because of emancipation. In 2010, The Atlantic Magazine published a controversial article with a no less controversial title – “The End of Men.” In that article, author Hanna Rosin asserts that the post-industrial economy has put an end to the dominance of men, clearing the way for women to take over. The author cites statistics to corroborate her assertion – for example, about seventy-five percent of couples request girls when applying for an artificial insemination method that supposedly enables them to select the sex of their child, which Rosin sees as a social trend reversal against the traditional preference for boys. The author also points to 2010 statistics showing more women employed than men for the first time in U.S. history and three women receiving college degrees for every two awarded to men.

Those statistics are impressive. It is obvious that economic order largely affects the redistribution of power between sexes – the role of women in democratic countries has sharply increased while men are in the process of adaptation. But how much that trend actually heralds the “end of men” is arguable. Proclaiming female dominance seems premature given the reality that, so far, only one percent of the global wealth is controlled by women; higher education is by no means a prerequisite of success; and the total income of women worldwide does not amount to even half of men’s total income. In the United States, women still earn only seventy-five cents for each dollar earned by men. The gender pay gap in Georgia is even wider – a woman earns a mere fifty-seven tetri against each Lari of a man’s salary.

Material inequality between the sexes is explained in various ways. Some believe that it is the result of gender injustice, which is characteristic for capitalist and patriarchal societies. Others contend that statistically based concerns about discrimination against women are, to put it mildly, a mistake – men receive higher remuneration than women because, along with other factors, men work longer hours.

Discussing gender differences in the context of gender antagonism alone reflects a superficial analysis of a complicated phenomenon. Gender roles are determined by numerous other factors too.

A Noble Prize winner in economic sciences, Gary S. Becker, asserts that the traditional distribution of functions in a family (wife - housewife, husband – breadwinner) was historically determined by economics. So was conventional morality. Under the old economic order, it was financially more advantageous for a woman to be a housewife. Outside the home, women could not profitably vie with men in an agrarian economy that mainly demanded physical labor.

The situation changed radically in the Nineteenth Century with the development of an industrial economy and a correspondingly sharp increase in human productivity. That, in turn, increased the cost of human resources. Increased labor prices forced employers to seek a cheaper workforce in the form of females. Those emerging labor trends encouraged women to obtain the qualifications needed to ensure their employment outside the home. Women thereby obtained the potential of earning more money for their outside labor than the cost of fulfilling their family functions.

Moreover, it became no longer feasible to depend on a single breadwinner once parents placed children’s college educations high on the agenda. The increase in life expectancy at the same time increased the financial burden of caring for aged parents. One also had to take into account health care costs, which had not constituted a problem earlier when medicine was still underdeveloped.

Having obtained material independence, women developed requirements different from men, as well as the desire to engage in decision-making processes. Hence, women entered politics.

The number of women in the workplace soared after World War II, which can be largely attributed to the early development then of a service-based economy. The mass exodus of women from their homes created additional jobs and a new demand for services that had traditionally been performed by mothers of families at home. Eventually, the number of spheres dominated by women increased – education, health care, social services, etcetera.

Changes in the role of women naturally affected family structure and conventional morality. The number of divorces sharply increased – statistics prove that financial independence has made it easier for women to decide to divorce their husbands. Family size also shrank – families with four or five children have become a rarity even in those Western countries that provide parents with the best possible maternity benefits. The main reason for that is also economics – it costs parents far more now than ever before to raise and educate a child.

The new role of women must be viewed in the context of much wider social and economic changes. Professor Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan contends that when people in developing economies are forced to focus on survival, women will also act accordingly – fighting for material benefits and caring less about self-expression. That happened in early post-Soviet Georgia, when women showed greater adaptability to a free market economy than men. Women became the family breadwinners by filling jobs that were in demand or pursuing self-employment opportunities. While Georgian men one after another were falling into depression or spending time only counting their diplomas, women were busy baking, cleaning, knitting, sewing, trading.

Georgia was no exception in that regard. Statistics of developing Latin American and East Asian countries show a much higher number of women self-employed there than in developed economies of the West. That is because undertaking independent economic activity is often the only path to survival for women in developing countries – in those countries, women find it difficult to convince employers of their superior qualifications and must strike out on their own in order to survive.

Professor Inglehart believes the issue of survival is irrelevant in developed economies with per-capita annual incomes exceeding USD 15,000. In those countries, post-material expressional values come to the fore. That spurs political activity of women.

If the increased political role of women in the West is a logical continuation of a process that sprang from within, that process in Georgia and some other developing economies is often forced from the outside. An example of that is the system of soft quotas introduced

through the efforts of our Western partners, which believe more budget funding for political parties will put more women on election lists.

That practice is unlikely to change really anything for either Georgian society in general or for women specifically. Female parliamentarians will be able to exert gender-neutral political weight only when they acquire a sturdy social pillar in the form of economically emancipated women. Until then, female lawmakers will have to be content with the function of “embellishment of feast” of male parliamentarians.

The concern of Western friends is understandable. Representation of women in the parliament is one criterion of the degree of women’s emancipation. Just how much weight that criterion should be accorded is an entirely separate issue. For example, Rwanda is the world leader by number of female parliamentarians. Nonetheless, no one would ever consider Rwandan women more emancipated than women in Sweden.

Of course, Georgia could always catch up (artificially) and outstrip Rwanda in the number of female parliamentarians per capita. The thing is, however, that everyone – be they women or men, young or elderly – regards poverty and unemployment as the country’s main challenges. Human labor will have no real value until substantially less than half of Georgia’s population is employed in agriculture, where productivity is tenfold lower than in other fields of economy.

Until that happens, the electorate will continue to demand that poverty be alleviated. The solution to that problem will improve the female condition, which, in turn, will lead to an increase in political participation among women. As Ronald Inglehart asserts in one of the books he co-authored with Harvard University Professor Pippa Norris, gender balance is a byproduct of every democracy, yet there is no link between female representation in parliament and the degree of democracy.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the effect women’s emancipation has had on men – at least, men who compete with women in the labor market. Moreover, married men – if their wives work outside the home and there is no one to help around the house – now have to share traditional functions (such as looking after the children, doing things in the kitchen), which, in the past, fell within the

“competence” of women alone.

That blurring of traditional roles has generated sharp criticism from conservative circles in developed countries too. “Rise of women has turned men into boys,” complains American Conservative writer Kay Hymowitz. She derides the obsession that thirty-year-old adult males have with the animated sitcom “South Park,” which she blames for late marriages – in a traditional understanding of marriage as the point at which a person is considered a grown-up. In the 1970s, only sixteen percent of Americans between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine were not married; today, that number stands at fifty-five percent.

Nothing of that kind has yet been observed in post-Soviet Georgia. Quite the contrary, marrying at a young ages, even among minors, happens quite frequently – though, for a large segment of parents and children, that does not mean that married people are “grown ups” at all.

In one Hymowitz article, I read something that reminded me of an episode in my own life. The article discussed how men, fearing they would be accused of violating equality, stopped letting women go first or inviting them somewhere and paying for them. That was how I bought a ticket for a Hungarian movie with French subtitles to which I had been invited by a Hungarian male colleague who worked with me then at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. At that time, I did not know French yet – as for Hungarian, I do not know it even today.

The only reason I agreed to go with my Hungarian colleague was that I did not want my refusal to be perceived as a sign of disrespect to his native culture. When I asked why he did not buy me a ticket after extending the invitation, he responded that he was not sure how I would perceive such a gesture.

Stereotypes about women and men are “mostly true,” claims Harvard University Professor Harvey Mansfield. He believes that gender roles are determined by evolution and that it is senseless to fight against nature. Defenders of traditional stereotypes deem gender equality a positive development; yet, at the same time, they pointedly cite surveys that indicate the majority of women still want to marry rich and strong men, even women who are themselves rich and strong enough to maintain their families.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 90, published 5 March 2012.

 

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