This article in today’s NY Times, by Philip Cohen (whose excellent blog Family Inequality is right here on WP – check it out), is a welcome reply to the unfortunately premature idea floating around these days that the patriarchy is dead because women have largely achieved equality. How I wish that were true.
And if you need evidence that it’s not true, here’s one recent study showing that when science faculty members examined the exact same two application packages, with the only difference being the applicants’ male versus female identities, the faculty rated the male applicant’s materials significantly higher than the female’s. The study was also published here in Scientific American. So much for scientific objectivity.
Cohen comes at the puzzle of gender inequality from a different angle: he explains that gender equality stalled in the 1990s and has never regained its astonishing momentum from the 1970s and 80s, and he’s got the data to back up his claims. What happened?
Well, read the article for the fine print, but basically it boils down to two things: First, some women have been able to choose careers that were once exclusive to men, but the opposite is not true. On the whole, men have not been breaking down doors to sign up for work traditionally done by women, for obvious reasons – low pay and social stigma. The result is stalled integration of the work force.
Second, the lack of work-family policies in the U.S. punishes mothers by making it insanely difficult, expensive, and stressful for us to have kids and a career (not just jobs outside the home, which most mothers have, but a rewarding career of our choice), for reasons that most people understand. That part is fairly obvious, but Cohen’s attention to the roles and choices of both mothers and fathers is refreshing.
But his solution raises a question: If we had, as he recommends, “family leave, reduced work hours, and public child care,” how much would these benefits truly “unblock the path toward gender equality,” particularly in the light of other data showing that (even) scientists still have deeply entrenched gender bias against women who are just as qualified as their male counterparts?
Which raises another, more general question: how much of gender inequality is rooted in practical difficulties, like lack of affordable child care, and how much of it persists because of ideologies and attitudes that might or might not be driving those practical difficulties?
In an uncomplicated world, we’d be able to find out pretty easily: let’s just be like those humane industrialized countries and institute the work-family policies, and we’d have an obvious, far-reaching point of comparison.
In the world we have, things are a bit messier, but Cohen adds some much-needed seriousness to a conversation that has lately suffered more than its share of sloppy thinking.