Kitchen sink drama

In the UK, women are being disproportionally affected by cuts in public spending. Sally Feldman asks whether the fiscal crisis is a cover for a return to a more traditional view of women’s roles and discusses an attack on gender quotas from an unexpected quarter.

Last summer the Fawcett Society attempted to create a precedent: they challenged the legality of a government budget. In response to the coalition’s proposal for deficit reduction, which foresaw 500 000 public sector job cuts, the feminist pressure group put in an application for a judicial review. The Treasury, they claimed, appeared to have failed to honour its legal duty under the Equality Act to give “due regard” to the impact on women.

The package of changes to jobs, benefits and services, argued the Fawcett Society, would have a greater impact on women than men, breaching discrimination law. It said women were disproportionately affected by the Budget changes, including caps on housing benefit, a freeze on child benefit and a rise in VAT. Women were also more often reliant on the welfare payments that were cut, while changes to the tax system favoured far more men than women.

But the bold move didn’t work. High Court judge Mr Justice Ouseley decided not to issue a declaration that June’s Budget had been unlawful, so the application did not go to a full hearing, even though the government had admitted that it had not held an Equality Impact Assessment for the June 2010 budget. And even though before the election Nick Clegg had “pledged” that should he be elected, he’d consider gender impact assessment of the budget.

And even now, the only concession the government has made is to publish an Equality Impact Assessment of the spending review, one so lacking in detail or substance that it reveals almost nothing. So could there be some deeper motive for its reluctance to consider this aspect of its budget, especially as more and more evidence is coming to light to support the Fawcett Society’s predictions?

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s former chief secretary to the Treasury, suspects so. When she delved into the budget statistics she discovered that the burden shouldered by women taxpayers was 72 per cent. Didn’t this suggest that underlying the government’s thinking seemed to be a traditional view of the family as a “private sphere from which the state should withdraw”?

Ceri Goddard, Fawcett’s Chief Executive, agrees. She has even hinted that the coalition might be using the fiscal crisis as a cover for restructuring the state and returning to a more traditional view of women’s roles. And this would be rather convenient for a government promoting as a key principle the notion of the Big Society. If we’re going to become a more generous country, fuelled by do-gooding and volunteering, with local communities filling the huge gaps left by swingeing cuts and cancelled programmes – who better to pull up their sleeves, get out the mops and the scrubbing brushes, the paint rollers and the sticky tape, than women?

This is, sadly, an echo of much earlier concerns about the place of women in society. In the early part of the twentieth century, just as the suffragette campaign was getting into its boldest stride, those opposed to the granting of the vote voiced noisy concerns about how a change in the franchise might damage the fragile bonds and agreements that kept communities together. Commentators were well aware of the economic value of the hidden philanthropic work of middle-class women. “Nothing can be further from our minds than to seek to depreciate the position or the importance of women,” declared the Appeal Against Female Suffrage. “It is because we are keenly alive to the enormous value of their special contribution to the community, that we oppose what seems to us to endanger that contribution.”

Now, as then, it fits government aspirations for a “civic economy” to claim that women have “different” skills from men, different sensibilities which make them ideal for supportive, caring, helping roles. You might think such notions so laughably outmoded that they couldn’t possibly attract any credibility. But an unexpected cheerleader for these traditional views has emerged – just when she was most needed. Enter Catherine Hakim from the London School of Economics. She recently caused a furore with the publication of her Centre for Policy Studies report, Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine, in which she condemns moves towards gender equality . Men dominate the top positions, she suggests, because women simply do not want careers in business. Calls to smash the glass ceiling, to eliminate the pay gap and end sex differentials are based on faulty assumptions and outdated or partial evidence.

“The latest academic research and studies show that most of the theories and ideas built up around gender equality in the last few decades are wrong,” Hakim says. “Despite feminist claims, the truth is that most men and women have different career aspirations and priorities. Men and women often have different life-goals and policy makers should therefore not expect the same job outcomes.”

So equality, according to Hakim, is a doomed ideal. “The goal of getting 50/50 male/female shares in all political, economic and socially important top jobs is out of touch with the preferences and aspirations of the majority of women,” she asserts. And why? Well, it seems that we don’t really want equality at all, nor do we have ambition, nor do we wish to compete with men, nor do we have the appetite to take on all the challenges and satisfactions for which we have been campaigning for over two centuries.

And guess what we want instead? “In reality,” Hakim explains, “many women shun a full-time career and choose a work-life balance backed by a rich husband instead, so they can bring up a family.” After all, who needs equality, independence, self-respect and fulfilment when you can just feed off someone else’s? And this, concludes Hakim, explains “women’s aspiration to marry up, if they can, to a man who is better educated and higher-earning …women thereby continue to use marriage as an alternative or supplement to their employment careers”.

Honestly, where has the woman been? Is she not aware of the rising divorce rate? Of the number of women deserted by partners who then renege on child support? Of the appalling financial destitution of many women who opt to rely on a man for an income, for a house, for a pension – only to find themselves cast aside or replaced by a younger model? She may be thinking of the delightful settlements that some career brides manage to achieve for their security. Women like Zsa Zsa Gabor who claimed to be very good at housekeeping as, “every time I get divorced I keep the house.” But high profile cases – like that of Heather Mills and her millions – are very exceptional. It surely doesn’t take a Relate expert to warn that while marriage can be a wonderful adventure and a romantic dream, it really can’t be a good insurance strategy. Even the very richest wives are finding themselves destitute after divorce, now that so many wealthy alpha-spouses have cottoned on to the wisdom of prenuptial agreements.

And it’s not just that marriage itself is too precarious to rely on as a career option. Staying in marriage isn’t always a picnic, either. Has Catherine never come across the wise teachings of our feminist mothers? Can she really pit her questionable statistics against the painful portrait that Betty Friedan painted in The Feminine Mystique of the wedlocked suburban housewife drowning in boredom, her mind numbed by cleaning products, her ambitions thwarted by shining floors and perfect apple pies.

“As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night,” Freidan writes, “she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?'”

When Catherine Hakim extols the joys of a woman’s role, how we should be resigned to and revel in our different sphere, she should take heed of Freidan’s heartfelt cry for the suburban wife: “Over and over women … were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights – the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for… .All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”

It was from rallying cries like Freidan’s, and the thoughts of so many other earlier feminists, that the women’s liberation movement grew, unleashing our quest for the same opportunities and rights as men. Who could have guessed there was even a remote chance that those hard-won victories might be reversed? And yet, Hakim is far from alone in her reviving of the old notions of the sex differences. What is so disconcerting about her ill-starred intervention is how well it fits with another rather different attempt to prove us unworthy, one which is gaining alarming new ground.

Of course there have always been vain attempts to demonstrate women’s inferiority. “For two millennia,” laments the sociologist Beth B. Hess, “impartial experts have given us such trenchant insights as the fact that women lack sufficient heat to boil the blood and purify the soul, that their heads are too small, their wombs too big, their hormones too debilitating, that they think with their hearts or the wrong side of the brain. The list is never-ending.”

It used to be believed that women were stupider than men because their brains were smaller. When that theory clearly didn’t hold up – after all, it’s fairly widely admitted that small-brained parrots are a lot brighter than large-brained elephants – the quest became more specific. Then the emphasis shifted to the frontal lobe which, it was wrongly thought, determined the differences between the sexes. Since this was larger in men than in women, it was confidently asserted, they must be more intelligent. Educators, doctors, clergymen would go to enormous lengths to find proof that women’s make-up is different from men’s and less fitted for worldly pursuits.

But the efforts of the latest kids on the sexist block, the neuroscientists, are cloaked in a new, trendy form of credibility. Their claim to know how our brains work is validated by science. So they litter their findings with scientifically impressive terms, rather as washing powder advertisements used to feature men in white coats extolling the “biological” properties of their product. Befitting our digital times, the new buzzword stems from computers. Gender differences, we are told, are “hard-wired” into our brains. You only have to think a little bit about brains to know they’re not wired at all, but the metaphor is perfectly judged to convince us of its reliability. So hooray for the psychologist Cordelia Fine who, in Delusions of Gender, does a heroic job of debunking the host of pseudo-research and assumptions which have led the onslaught.

And, Cordelia Fine explains, new kinds of research have given rise to yet more rabid attempts to put us in our place. Her first target is Simon Baron Cohen and his many followers. It was Baron Cohen who postulated the idea that women are “hard-wired” to be more instinctual and caring than men, as measured by his now infamous Empathy Quotient. Men, being more dominant and directed, score better on the equally suspect Systematising Quotient. Although his evidence is based on the results of rather subjective questionnaires, and although the differences these demonstrated are fairly slight, the real basis of his theory is physical. Differences between the genders, he suggests, derive from the amount of foetal testosterone in utero. This, apparently, is what gives males the advantage when it comes to maths and science.

Cordelia Fine proceeds to question not just the wobbly basis for this assumption, but many of the experiments that have followed. One trial gave newborn babies the choice to look at a face or a mobile, with the assumption that females would concentrate more on the face. But it ignored the fact that newborn babies can’t see or distinguish shapes very well, regardless of the amount of testosterone swirling round them. Another exposed toddlers to “boy-oriented” and “girl-oriented” toys, as well as supposedly neutral ones, in order to audit their preferences. But no one had bothered to analyse quite what made a male or female toy, nor whether the babies knew the difference.

And while babies may not have a developed sense of their societal roles, their parents most certainly do. The panoply of social assumptions about the differences between boys and girls plays a huge, defining part in the ways in which we view ourselves. If we operate in a society, as many of us still do, where women are regarded as submissive, instinctive and emotional it’s natural to behave that way. Fine quotes numerous studies demonstrating the distorting effects of stereotypes, including experiments which show how men and women will adapt to expectations of them. For example, two groups were given the same maths paper, but one was told women tend to do better, the other that women do worse. And the results from each group bore that out. It wasn’t ability that was at stake – it was expectation. And that same expectation assumes that women can’t hold a logical argument, can’t read maps and most certainly can’t understand the offside rule.

It’s exactly this kind of faulty reasoning that leads Catherine Hakim to make her claim that women choose lower status jobs because we actually prefer them – rather as it used to be argued that slaves enjoyed all that invigorating exercise on the cotton fields. She conveniently ignores the massive conditioning that has led to this status quo. And, just like the neuroscientists so hellbent on reducing women’s brain-power, she ignores the overwhelming evidence that it is not foetal testosterone, nor hard-wiring in the brain, nor global interference that thwarts women’s ambitions. It’s just good old-fashioned sex discrimination – both overt and subtle – which discourages women’s ambitions and acts as the most unassailable barrier to entry into many “male” spheres. As Tanya Gold pointed out wearily in a recent Guardian article, “she seems ignorant of the fact that the battle for equality is a process, and that culture influences aspirations. And culture, as all sociologists should know, can change.”

But none of that should get in the way of a good story. Despite the suspect nature of many of these theories and studies, the idea that we’re hard-wired for our different sphere has been seized enthusiastically by proponents of popular psychology. One of the most profligate, Louann Brizendine, wildly exaggerates the premise: “”If the testosterone surge doesn’t happen,” she asserts gaily,” the female brain continues to grow unperturbed. The foetal girl’s brain cells sprout more connections in the communication centres and areas that process emotion.”

Other popular psychologists have taken up a similar stance, but base their claims on the discovery that different abilities and tendencies are located in the left and right sides of the brain. This is the kind of short cut to understanding that fuels the work of John Gray, author of the best-selling Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It’s a kind of analysis that can be quite dangerous as, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself flattered to be told that you’re more empathetic, more instinctive, more caring and a better communicator than men, rather as a Piscean might warm to the idea that she’s artistic, dreamy and creative.

But there’s very little hard evidence of these differences, warns Fine, as she proceeds to demolish the recent attempts of neuroscience to trawl down into our gendered brains. She points out that neuroimaging is a very new technology, and while it holds such promise, many of its claims are premature. “It is a little disconcerting that neuroimagers are now finding that reported sex differences in brain activation haven’t been put to adequate statistical testing, or can come and go depending on how the analysis is done, or can fail to generalize to a distinct but similar task within a second group of men and women, or that the kind of analyses used to establish sex differences in brain activation can also ‘discover’ brain activation differences between randomly created groups.”

While Cordelia Fine does a sterling job in questioning and overturning all these methods, she doesn’t really answer the more fundamental question: why is there still such a drive to prove women’s inferiority? You can’t help wondering whether all the new, whizzy, technological wizardry is being put to use to support some very ancient ideas indeed. Belief in the separate sphere of women derives from a Judaeo-Christian worldview where a woman’s value was above rubies and yet below that of men; where even in the Garden of Eden the original couple had divided duties.

It’s a strange kind of paradise we seem set to be returning to. These days Eve’s duties are likely to include stints at the library, delivering meals on wheels, running a school perhaps, clearing a forest or two and organising a tombola to keep the local museum open.

Watch out for snakes.

Published 8 March 2011
Original in English
First published by New Humanist 2/2011

© Sally Feldman / New Humanist / Eurozine



Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: A recipe for survival

Veganism, the ethical choice, was once born of necessity. Today’s regular omnivore diet was previously a luxury for the wealthy, ill afforded by peasants. Preserving food was a means of subsistence. Can pickling and jamming traditions, now making a comeback, be recognized for their cultural heritage in addition to gentrified sauerkraut and cherry compote recipes?

Cover for: Exploring ageing

Exploring ageing

Introducing Eurozine’s new talk show

Ageing gracefully? Why not age disgracefully instead! Four generations discuss the problem of age, and why women just aren’t allowed to enjoy their time of life, on the first episode of Eurozine’s new venture.