February 21, 2011

Institutional Sexism

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The competitive, high-powered and time-consuming nature of American capitalist employment raises issues for women. Capitalism, while facially gender neutral, in practice does not support gender equality in the workplace; women are forced to weigh the opportunity to give birth to and raise children against the opportunity for advancement at work. Capitalism is all about moving quickly on deals, efficient production and above all staying competitive at the cheapest price possible. Pregnant employees or even employees who can get pregnant are thus less likely to be perceived as “good” investments — unless they prove themselves to be extra-productive or qualified. Stated simply, qualified women must often show themselves to be “power women” to have the combination of work life and family life that qualified men are expected to have.

Women get pregnant, deal with morning sickness, give birth and feed babies from their bodies in a long process that can stretch out over two years. Needless to say, running out of meetings to throw up or use your breast pump is not conducive to impressing the management.

On the other end of the age spectrum, women will have difficulty advancing in the workplace if their careers have been stunted by past pregnancies and child-rearing, leaving them behind men on the career ladder by the time they reach their 50s and 60s. It is no coincidence that the last three female nominees to the Supreme Court have been single.

Yes, women have successfully managed families and careers in the past and will continue to do so in the future. These women are called “impressive,” never “regular” or “normal.”  Not every woman wants to have an in-charge career and children, is fiscally capable of doing so, or should even be expected to by society. It is because of those things that not every woman is a “power woman,” as a friend of mine calls her mom, a corporate lawyer and mother of three.

There are, however, a lot of women out there managing children and jobs, who my friend would not call “power women.” These are female members of the workforce who work jobs and not careers because they have children. Everyone reading this knows a woman who will never be promoted or change jobs because she simply does not have the time to dedicate to doing more than what is required of her. Single mothers, poor mothers and young mothers all experience this daily, whether they are cashiers at chain stores or working as paralegals.

It is easy to define successful feminism as being capable of having it all within the workplace of today. That, however, is a band-aid to sexism, pressuring women to fulfill a problematic expectation created by society at large. Women should not have to rush back to work and sacrifice their quality of life to provide financial support for their families. Mothers, single or married, should not have to give up a successful career for a job that just manages to support their children. Creating gender equality in the workplace will mean compensating for disadvantages that women traditionally and biologically have to face. We need a new definition of feminism: One that allows for differences between the sexes and enables women to be successful and financially stable and to have children if they wish to.

In January, the United States became the only Western nation to neither provide federally funded paid leave to new mothers nor mandate that companies do so. Australia formerly joined us in failing to provide this basic support but recently introduced a new law by which the government provides a minimum of 18 paid weeks to mothers with newborns. The fact that the U.S. does not have such a plan of even six weeks, nor does it mandate that employers provide one, is a major policy problem that furthers the notion that the “power woman” is the only truly successful woman. It is a policy that says that getting back to work just after giving birth is the only way for women to be equal to men. Again, women are expected to solve the problem of gender inequality on their own.

Paid leave for new parents should extend to men as well. If a woman chooses to go back to work, then the husband should be allowed to stay home on the company or the government’s tab for several reasons. The first is that paid leave for fathers helps society reject the notion that staying home with the kids is explicitly a female responsibility, breaking down gender barriers. The second is that it encourages the back and forth flow between female and male employment — as benefits are extended to both sexes, the interchangeability between a male and a female employee increases, helping companies have truly gender neutral employment processes.

Policies like paid parental leave are staples of domestic policy in socialist countries like Sweden, earning the ideas themselves the label “socialist.” While paid parental leave would not necessarily be conducive to maximized use of employees in the short term, it would earn the entire country a quality of life that encourages gender equality for every citizen.

One of the many objections to mandated paid parental leave is the cost. There are ways, however, to help companies out. Why not propose a graduated tax break to aid companies in providing their employees with federally mandated paid leave? The government could provide small businesses, who will bear the brunt of losing employees, with a certain percentage break in their taxes and decrease the percentage as the companies grow larger and the impact of a single employee’s leave is minimized. Ultimately, in fostering a work environment where women can take care of themselves without sacrificing their positions, companies will see an increase in productivity and maximized use of skills by qualified employees, whether they are male or female.

A second, often-expressed objection is that this would be an overextension of government reach. However, this is not a question of big or small government; it is a question of civil rights. It is the government’s responsibility to promote equality among citizens. That has to be our absolute priority, and without paid parental leave, women are dealt the much shorter end of the employment stick.

Maggie Henry is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry