Are women really still second-class citizens?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has released a report to mark International Women’s Day and draw attention to the challenges women still face world-wide. As the BBC reports, women have only seen “marginal improvements” in the world of work during the past 20 years according to a new global study. The difference in the employment rate between men and women has only decreased by 0.6% since 1995, the ILO said.

“The report shows the enormous challenges women continue to face in finding and keeping decent jobs,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

Women are also working more hours than men in both paid and unpaid work, the report says.

Reports like these are increasingly common, and to an uncritical eye, they sound like nothing has changed and we are still stuck in the 1930s. You get the same story about supposed racism and discrimination with facts and figures to back it up. Sadly, reports are generally terrible when it comes to explaining the numbers and no one really expects you – the reader – to dig any further.

Much of this ILO report bases its conclusions on the numbers yet does not substantiate its main claim that the figures show discrimination is alive and well. Arguably, you can say this shows institutional discrimination as opposed to active cultural discrimination. The difference is a subtle one. Active cultural discrimination is where women are put in a second-class position in society simply because they are women. They are limited in civil and political rights, and their job opportunities are limited to certain positions (e.g., nurse, secretary). Institutional discrimination occurs along similar cultural lines yet it is a result of how the social institutions are constructed rather than intentionally built.

“Not every society values woman equally as men, nor do all woman have to choose between work or family. A woman has the right to make this choice in our society, and both are equally important, yet she should not be made worse off for it.”

In this case, the labour market is freely open to women to pursue whatever avenue they want and with very few exceptions would they be actively targeted (e.g., if there was a health and safety issue involved). For example, some women decide to focus on having a family and if they decide to go back to work their options may be limited to only part-time work because the demands of full-time work would not allow her to be a mother and a worker. This situation (which happens quite regularly for women) is in part her own choice, yet understandably women really should not be so disadvantaged and have to choose one or the other. The job market though is structured in such a way as to limit her options at working and being a parent. This is the result of institutional bias rather than active discrimination. The effects on a persons well-being though are just the same.

Fortunately, this report at least acknowledges such reasons:

“This gap can be linked to the under-valuation of the work women undertake and of the skills required in female-dominated sectors or occupations, discrimination, and the need for women to take career breaks or reduce hours in paid work to attend to additional care responsibilities such as child care.”

The fundamental issue here is cultural. Not every society values woman equally as men, nor do all woman have to choose between work or family. A woman has the right to make this choice in our society, and both are equally important, yet she should not be made worse off for it.

Also, this report and many like it fail to acknowledge what impact this has on men. In fact, I do not know of any such report looking at the role of men in society (perhaps we are just too privileged and oppressive to warrant any research). To be fair, this is a report for International Women’s Day, so we can shelve this issue for another time.

As the report acknowledges, there are several reasons why this gender gap exists (although the report and others like it uncritically favours discrimination as the reason d’être). Sure, discrimination certainly exists in many societies. However, the cultural dimensions of it are often overlooked and the report simply relies on the numbers to justify its position. As mentioned, not every woman wants to choose between work or family, and if they do have to they may choose one, the other, both or neither. Feminism is supposed to support a woman’s fundamental right to make these choices, and she is not morally wrong in choosing any of those options.

“Discrimination is a problem and should continued to be addressed, but there is more to it than just the numbers.”

I agree wholeheartedly more needs to be done to allow women all over the world to reach their fullest potential and live fulfilling lives in whatever path they choose (although not all people or societies agree with such sentiment). What I am critical of is reports like this obscuring the cultural reasons behind these numbers, instead opting to conclude no progress has been made in 20 years because the numbers do not lie. Numbers can be manipulated, twisted and contorted to fit our bias. True, the numbers can present facts (e.g., women working more hours in paid and unpaid work than men, continuing to earn less than men) but why this is the case is complex and requires strong arguments or justifications to support your conclusions. You cannot simply point to the numbers and say, “See, here it is!” The numbers are only one part of the story.

If a woman decides to take part-time work so she can earn some extra money and still spend time with her family, then she will be ‘earning less’ than a man who can work full-time in the same job. Should she be vilified for this if this is what she really wants? Should we be paying her more to make up the difference? Should men, in effect, be discriminated against for being men (who biologically do not have the ability to have babies)?

There are many far-reaching and complicated issues we as a society should genuinely be discussing about the gender gap. Yet pigeonholing it all under discrimination is woefully simplistic and does not do justice to the vast improvements women (and men) have benefited from worldwide. The world my mother grew up in (where she was told to just go marry a doctor or lawyer and have kids) is quite different to today, nonetheless over the past twenty years. Of course, discrimination is a problem and should continue to be addressed, but there is more to it than just the numbers.


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