This post is the second of a two part series on gender inequality in the United States. Gender inequality is defined as the disparity in status, power and prestige between people who identify as women and men. Last week, I looked at how gender inequality still exists in the United States, despite our frequent unwillingness to acknowledge it. Even as the rate of women employees reaches over half of the workforce, there is still a sharp discrepancy in the number of women in leadership positions in all fields. Today, I focus on how the role of women in our society is still a divisive topic, no matter how surprising that might seem.
There is a deep divide today in America with two distinct sides. You may be counting on me to talk about abortion. But you’d be wrong. Abortion, though many radical individuals may make it appear otherwise, is not a black and white issue in this country. People have a variety of opinions on it. Some individuals are firmly anti-choice and think that abortion is never acceptable, even in the case of rape and incest. Then there are those who think abortion should be illegal with exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. Others believe that, while they will never personally get an abortion, it should remain legal and accessible to women should they choose to have one. Finally there are those who feel that abortion should be safe and legal because everyone is entitled to their own choice about what is happening within their bodies. And no matter how you slice it, no matter when life begins, there is no denying that this is taking place within a woman’s body.
However, there’s a more fundamental issue that we as a country are wrestling with: the role of women in our society and whether a person is limited by her biological XX chromosomes or merely by her individual capabilities. While this is a more general issue than is abortion, how one feels about the role of women in society can inform his or her opinion on the right of women to have an abortion. At the heart of the issue, you have two strong and opposing narratives on gender roles in contemporary Western society. On one side there are individuals who think that women, on the basis of their sex, have limited potential for certain roles in our society. On the other side there are individuals who think that women should be judged on the basis of individual skills and talents without pre-imposed limitations based on sex.
It’s easy to write this issue off: “Women won the right to vote, stormed the workforce, and broke the glass ceiling. Of course everyone thinks that women can do anything they set their minds to!” The March 26th issue of Time magazine, on which I wrote my column last week, had the title “The Richer $ex- Women are overtaking men as America’s breadwinners.” But this perspective, one that would have us believe that gender equality is here, is dangerous when that’s not actually the case. As I pointed out, though women make up over 50% of the workforce, Time acknowledged that the percentage of women managers has risen from 35% to only 38% of the last twenty years and women are vastly underrepresented in the top positions in almost every profession. And, while it’s easier to claim victory than to continue an uphill battle for change, we are far from a society that is characterized by its belief that women should be judged not on the basis of their sex but on the basis of their individual abilities.
The opinion that women should have limits to the role they can play in society merely based on their sex comes up surprisingly often in remarks people in the public sphere make.
For example, on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum said, “I do have concerns about women in front-line combat. I think that could be a very compromising situation where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved. I think that’s probably not in the interest of men, women or the mission.”
Here Santorum, who just won the Louisiana Primary and is Mitt Romney’s main contender for the Republican Presidential nominee, is stating his belief that women cannot or should not participate in the front lines of the military, no matter what their individual strengths, based on pre-existing and archaic gender roles.
I want to clarify here that I don’t think this position comes out of an inherent hatred for women. I believe that Santorum loves his wife and daughters and respects them. But, when he looks at them, he sees things that they cannot do based on their sex and not on the basis of their individual talents. He also looks at them and sees things that they are supposed to do based on their sex. Perhaps he sees them as filling a role that is complementary to men, even one of equal value. Yet, that idea of separate but equal is still problematic. In the case of “complimentary” gender roles, it often isn’t about balancing the male and the female and giving each equal weight but rather using the female role to support the masculine one. It also ignores those that don’t fit clearly into one gender or another.
Santorum shows that sexism can exist outside of hatred for women and still be extremely damaging. In the case of women in the military, there’s hard evidence to counter Santorum’s opinion. A number of recent studies have concluded that the U.S. military should stop excluding women from ground-combat units and with Pentagon announcing on Thursday it would end a decades-old rule and allow women to serve in battalions closer to the front lines.
On the same topic, Liz Trotta, a journalist on Fox news said, “Just a few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented on a new report on Sexual Abuse on the military…[it] says there’s been since 2006 a 64% increase in violent sexual assaults. Now what did they expect? These people are in close contact.”
Here not only is Trotta in favor of placing restrictions on women based on sex but also is limiting men’s potential based on sex by implying that they cannot serve with women without being violent. Does Trotta actually represent our society’s perspective that when men and women serve in close contact the inevitable outcome in sexual assault?
This brings me to my next point. The limitations people impose based on sex do not merely affect women but men as well. In the workforce, women may be stereotyped into certain roles because they are women while men are judged on their individual skills. However, many people stereotype men as the breadwinner and would believe in their limited ability to serve as caretakers for children for example or older adults because of their sex.
Certainly, women and men have different biological make-ups. Some studies suggest that these biological differences affect how men and women operate and make each better for different roles while other studies suggest that the biological differences that do exist are inconsequential for performance. However, even if you want to say that “on average, women tend to communicate better than men” or “men typically have stronger spatial abilities” based on biological differences, the problem is that there are always outliers. There is guaranteed to be some man out there who communicates better than some woman. There are also women out there with better spatial abilities than men. Also, so much of our individual talents and skills come from our experiences growing up and what we are taught, trained, and desire to be.
In order to create a society with the best, most qualified people in their jobs it is necessary to base the requirements for that job on individual characteristics and not eliminate potentially talented candidates based on sex.
It’s time to recognize the inequality that exists in our country in the way that people construct limitations for men and women on the roles they can play based merely on sex. Individuals’ unique skills and talents, and not their sex, should determine their potential and ability to play any role they want in society.