Inequality 101

It always astonishes me when so-called gender change experts are surprised when their leadership, equal pay or women’s training/mentoring initiative only provides small changes in the overall problem of gender inequality in their organisation. Looking at the issue holistically, it’s absolutely obvious that only addressing one piece of the overall gender system’s power can’t lead to significant or sustainable change.

What these initiatives often ignore is that effective theories of culture change point to the need for transformation in three different arenas for the change to be sustainable: the symbolic, the ideological and in the realm of actual social, political and economic relations. Like most contemporary gender change efforts, second wave feminism in the 1970s focused considerable effort on changing the actual social, political and economic relations between women and men. Today, as a result of these efforts, women and girls have somewhat more economic might than their grandmothers and mothers did. Far more women work in paid employment and in a much wider array of jobs than in the past. Far more men participate (at least a bit) in the raising of their children than in the past. But, as with contemporary efforts, the symbolic and ideological aspects of gender inequality were largely ignored. And, as a result, these symbolic and ideological aspects not only have not receded, in myriad ways they have grown exponentially in the past four decades.

This stood out to me recently when a Facebook friend posted a picture of my fourth grade class, circa 1976. There we were, girls, boys and otherwise, all dressed approximately the same way: jeans or cords and blue and red striped rugby shirts or press stud fronted shirts with big collars.* Most of us had approximately the same hair cut, too. Bowl on the head, uneven fringe in the front, badly in need of a combing and some product all over. This androgynous sameness meant that boys and girls were not particularly gendered in their appearance and could thus experience each other on a somewhat level playing field, whether on an actual playing field or in a maths class.

Seeing that photo made me take a look at Facebook photos of friends’ children who are in a similar age range to me in 1976. Wow! The differences are enormous!! In 2015 boys and girls look absolutely nothing alike. While 9-year old boys remain in jeans and comfortable shirts, 9-year old girls now look like 25-year old women. Miniskirts, visible bras, plenty of skin and hair and make-up done up as if for a night at a club rather than a day at school.

I couldn’t help but think of Naomi Wolfe’s “beauty myth” and radical feminism’s “pornofication of culture.” At least some of the time that girls had in 1976 to run around and play, try out new sports, read and study is now spent by girls shopping and primping. While boys can run around and explore their environments, girls are held back by the fear of getting dirty or ruining their clothes, shoes and hair (or by parents who are concerned about these things). The childhood experience of sameness that boys and girls could have of each other has been replaced by an extreme and hierarchical difference, one that leaves young boys able to play and study freely without worrying about their appearance while girls are pulled into the highly gendered personal appearance worries of people two or three times their age.

Is this really progress? Yes, clothing, toy and other companies that make their profits selling products for children have certainly segmented and thus ‘grown’ their markets, in some cases exponentially. But what they have really grown is an entrenched societal inequality that putting more women on their boards and in executive roles will not be able to counteract.

Gender inequality is a holistic problem and solving it requires we think much more holistically than in the past about tackling it. So keep working on leadership, mentoring, pay inequity, pipelines, unconscious bias and so forth, but without also addressing unequal gendered symbolism and the ideologies that support it, none of these initiatives to address the social, political or economic disadvantage of women and girls is sustainable in the long term.

This is an edited version of an opinion piece I wrote for Beyond the Spin, issue 3, Spring 2010.

* I grew up in the United States and attended the local public school so none of us was in an official school uniform.