Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which should be some cause for celebration. After all, 100 years of progress is an incredibly long time in human history. In the past 100 years we moved from horse-drawn carriages and plows to an international space station orbiting the planet. In 100 years we went from a largely-illiterate population with extremely limited access to information to a planet-wide network that puts virtually the sum total of all human knowledge at ready access from something that we can slip into our pockets. Our understanding of the universe has gone from the deterministic passage of small particles to a nuanced, varied and complex probabilistic model, allowing us to probe concepts previously written off as unsolvable “mysteries”.
Surely in all that time, with all that progress, we’ve made similar strides in the way we treat each other. The answer, as always, seems to be “yes and no”.
Across the globe by almost every measure, women lag well behind men. Even though women do 66 per cent of the work and produce half of the food, UNICEF reports that they earn only 10 per cent of the global income and own just one per cent of the property. Nowhere in the world do women account for even a third of the national parliamentarians and, in most regions, including Canada, it is considerably less.
Still, this represents progress.
This article, published in the Vancouver Sun, is a pretty decent overview of the various stalls and starts of the movement for women’s equality, but it doesn’t do an explicit job of answering the question implied by its own title – why does feminism still matter? Why should we be focusing on issues that affect women? Anti-feminists, in their attempts to resemble reasonable and decent human beings (rather than reactionary dicks) often refute the feminist position by arguing that we should focus on having equal rights for everyone, and that focusing on women is the same as ignoring men. And while feminists sometimes just want to scream “men are doing just fine, shut your face hole!”, that’s a quick way to lose an argument for a stupid reason.
In the U.S., 70 per cent of companies surveyed lacked strategies for promoting women, compared to 71 per cent internationally. Despatie noted that the Canadian survey also showed that 43 per cent of companies didn’t feel they had a problem with promoting women to top jobs. To women, however, the lack of support strategies was clear. More than half (53 per cent) of all Canadian women and about 38 per cent of American women thought their organization provided “no or minimal support” for their promotion.
It’s right here that the importance of feminism is revealed: companies think they’re doing an excellent job promoting women, but the reality is that they are even worse here than they are in the United States, a place that we’re all happy to look down on socially (to my great chagrin). When there is such a huge gap between perception and reality, the status quo becomes deeply entrenched and progress becomes next to impossible. I am somewhat reminded of the bromide from Alcoholics Anonymous – the first step is admitting you have a problem.
When confronted with this kind of information, the usual reaction of the anti-feminists is to go with the old standby excuse of “maybe there aren’t enough qualified women for the positions”. To me that seems to invite the question: why the hell aren’t there? Women are statistically better educated, are supposedly guaranteed by law to be free from official discrimination based on sex, and equally intelligent as their male counterparts – wherefore the disparity?
In both years, a full 30 per cent of the largest companies in Canada did not have a single woman in their executive ranks. “Time is up for ‘give it time’,” Gillis said, though she added that the solution is not simple tokenism. Research indicates that on average, companies with more women senior officers outperform those with fewer (emphasis mine).
That agrees very much with what one of Canada’s largest companies has found in its efforts to reduce the homogeneity of its executive ranks. “If you start to see it as one versus the other, you miss the point,” TD Bank CEO Ed Clark said of the bank’s efforts to promote more women in a recent CBC interview. “By framing it as a people development issue, you don’t get this zero-sum game; everybody wins.”
More and more we are finding that the stereotypical underperformance of women in “men’s fields” like sciences and mathematics are a product of the stereotypes, and not due to any actual difference in cognitive ability. Tearing down stereotypes is a process that requires the intentional encouragement of cognitive dissonance – creating highly visible and immediately recognizable violations of the stereotype. Faced with observed reality and “what I’ve always heard”, reality wins out in the end. Add to that the fact that encouraging women appears to have beneficial outcomes above and beyond being the right thing to do, and you’ve got the recipe for a winner.
(There is an important fact raised in that article that doesn’t fit the overall theme of the argument, but I thought it should be raised anyway. While Crown corporations had the largest proportion of women in executive positions, the private sector came in second place, a number that has increased slightly in the past 2 years. It appears that the private sector is doing a better job of promoting women than the public sector. Just food for thought.)
It may not be kosher to discuss the premier-designate (Christy Clark) in terms of her sex, given we are conditioned to believe that a person’s capability has nothing to do with gender, but it’s clearly a factor, because when it comes to positions of power, whether it’s Parliament Hill or a corporate boardroom, a skirt is still an anomaly in Canada.
And it is relevant. The majority of the population is female, and yet women remain woefully under-represented at the top -be it by historical choice or entrenched sexism. Women, despite making up the bulk of the workforce, are still traditionally considered custodians of the home and hearth and, as such, are often viewed as weaker than men, slower to decision and less likely to be strong political leaders who will go the distance.
My home province of British Columbia (or at least those who are registered members of the provincial Liberal party) recently appointed a new leader… and it’s a lady! If you scratch the surface of the image of the B.C. granola hippie yoga hipster, you’ll find that B.C. is still a western province with deep entrenched Conservative (note the capitalization) values. It is indeed, therefore, a big deal that the person with her finger on the button is a “her”. Despite the fact that the provincial Liberals would pass for Conservatives just about anywhere else in the country, a female premier (designate) is just the kind of high-profile stereotype-busting position I was talking about, and I wish premier-designate Clark success.
Soldiers backing Ivory Coast’s defiant leader mowed down women protesting his refusal to leave power in a hail of gunfire Thursday, killing at least six and shocking a nation where women’s marches have historically been used as a last resort against an unrestrained army. Because the president’s security force has shown almost no reserve in opening fire on unarmed civilians, the women decided this week to organize the march in the nation’s commercial capital Abidjan, assuming soldiers would be too ashamed to open fire. But at least six of the thousands of women demonstrating Thursday were killed on the spot, said Mohamed Dosso, an assistant to the mayor of Abobo, a suburb of the city.
Women bring another set of sensibilities to the table when discussing issues, and a diversity of viewpoints is a strength. Whatever the final decision, having a plurality of insight allows decision-making authorities to consider a variety of potential outcomes. In the Ivory Coast, women have traditionally exercised a different kind of power to their male counterparts, and have been able to blunt the more outrageous actions of a male-dominated culture. Their execution by the army signals a disturbing new development in an already-disturbing conflict.
Which brings me back to the question I tried to address earlier: why does feminism still matter?
Well, do women experience disproportionately little political and economic power? Is the improvement of the standing of women irrevocably linked to the improvement of society in general? Have gains been made? Is there still work to do?
The answer to all of the above questions is “yes”. We are not yet, as a society, in a position to let feminism slide into history as obsolete. While I am primarily a commentator on race and associated issues, I am not so blind as to fail to recognize that the same societal forces that are stacked against black people are stacked against women. A victory for women is a victory for all of us, and there can be no equality until we see the advancement of women as being part of our own self-interest. In order to achieve that, people need to be talking about it.
Happy International Women’s Day.
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