What are the main features of gender inequality today? Critically evaluate two of the explanations of these features.
The main features of gender inequality today are: work, education, and gendered expectations in society. This essay will discuss how these inequalities can be accounted for according to the theories of liberal and fat-positive feminism. Liberal feminism is a theory of individual freedom, and its devotees are of the opinion that a woman’s private life should not be regulated by society, and wishes not to change the system entirely, but simply improve women’s experiences and rights within it. Fat-positive feminists, however, while having specific image-related beliefs, tend to ally themselves with the beliefs of radical feminists. These attribute women being oppressed to the “patriarchy” of society, and seek to challenge standard gender roles in a bid to change this.
Today, gender inequality in the workplace is still rife, despite the passing of the Equal Pay Act more than 35 years ago. This is illustrated in Scottish Enterprise’s figures of those in Modern Apprenticeships from April 2004-March 2005, (Equal Opportunities Commission, 2006, 3) which show that certain areas were still more male- or female-dominated; only 0.5% of plumbing apprentices were female, while only 0.9% of early years care and education apprentices were male. While those occupations with smaller numbers of apprentices were fairly balanced in the male to female ratio, six of the eleven occupations with more than 1000 apprentices were, “heavily gender segregated”, with such disproportionate representations of the “non-typical” gender as low as 0.5% (Equal Opportunities Commission, 2006, 3). However, figures from the government’s Women and Equality Unit show that in 2005, the mean pay gap between men and women who worked full time was just 17.1%, the smallest it has been since it was first recorded in 1970, so in this area at least, the situation appears to be improving (Women and Equality Unit, 2006, 2). Liberal feminists would argue that this gap should not exist at all, and women should be given the same wage as men; and that more women should be entering the so-called “non-typical” professions. Fat-positive and radical feminists would also view the wage gap as indicative that things need to change until women have equal wages, but their opinions stem more from the idea that the gap is caused by oppression of - and discrimination against - women by dominant men, and that this could be solved by changing the way society’s traditional power roles are held by men, as opposed to the liberal-held belief that society does not require to change, but simply needs more legal action to ensure fair and equal treatment of both men and women.
On the matter of education, there is no question of the difference in performance. In schools, girls are consistently achieving higher marks than boys. This goes for higher qualifications, too; the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) statistics for 2005 show that out of a total of 616,978 entries for national units at Higher level, 342,375 of those were girls’, compared with 274,603 from boys (SQA, 2005, 24); while at Intermediate 2 level the difference drops, but is still noticeable, with 293,993 entries from girls and 262,549 from boys (SQA, 2005, 23). Once they leave school, however, according to a Scottish Executive publication on strategies to address gender inequalities in Scottish schools, this high rate of female achievement seems to drop. After leaving school, the publication states, “some young women who had demonstrated high levels of attainment in school were positioned by versions of 'heterosexualised feminities' into subordinate relationships with males.” (Scottish Executive, 2006, 5.iii) While the lack of sustained achievement would be lamented by liberal feminists, who would seek to find ways to encourage young women to achieve more after leaving school, fat-positive, radical feminists would be utterly appalled at the thought of female achievement being curtailed by the – seemingly undeniable and relentless – patriarchy of society. They would call for a complete change in society, claiming that males would have to be shifted from positions of dominance in the workplace and in everyday life, in order to give both young and older women – and non-dominant males, too – the chance to fulfil their potential, and thus create a fairer working environment with equal opportunities for everyone.
Finally, the largest and possibly most contested area of gender inequalities: gendered social expectations. The first of these expectations concerns the traditional gender roles of women staying at home to ‘keep house’ and look after children while men go to work and earn a living for the family. For a start, these traditional roles no longer relate overly much to today’s society, with the number of women in the labour force steadily rising. According to the office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey, 24,859,000 women over the age of 16 were in the labour force during October-December 2006, compared with 24,514,000 during the same period in 2004 (Office for National Statistics, 2007, web table 1). Additionally, more men are deciding to become stay-at-home fathers, allowing their partners to be the breadwinner instead. However, the stereotypes persist. Women who attempt to have a career are often criticised for neglecting their families; and even women in rather high-ranking positions can be forced to start all over again at the bottom of the career ladder after taking time off work to have children, particularly if she requires a position with more flexible hours in order to fit in childcare obligations. This, of course, is completely unfair, as it basically negates the woman’s achievements and essentially forces her to choose between having a career and having a family. This tends to apply more to those with specific “careers” as opposed to typical working class women who work simply to earn money, not to progress up a career ladder. However, working class women also have responsibilities to their families, as shown throughout history and today in some of the more disadvantaged areas where unemployment is a problem: “Feminist research, like studies of unemployment during the depression of the 1930s, shows that women bear the brunt not only of managing household expenditure on reduced incomes but also of the sacrifices made…Much…research literature suggests that women’s skill, resourcefulness and effort in ‘stretching’ the available money is a critical factor in the family’s ability to survive men’s unemployment. Further, women may protect both their children and their husbands or partners from the worst effects of ‘life on the dole’ by concealing their own worries, or prioritizing their children’s and the husband’s or partner’s needs.” (Robertson Elliot, 1996, 85-86) While the fact that the number of women in the labour force is growing would be welcomed by liberal feminists, it is likely that they would campaign for the introduction of legislation to prevent women being bumped back down the career ladder after childbirth; and encourage the wives of unemployed men to go out and find employment for themselves, and support their family that way. Fat-positive, radical feminism on the other hand, would rally fiercely against the notion of women choosing between career and family, and would blame this on oppressive, dominant males, who care more about making a profit than being fair to all employees. They would campaign for an overhaul of society – no doubt reminding men in the process that women aren’t required to bear children, but childbirth is essential for the continuing existence of the human race – and that these children will grow up to be the next generation of employees – both male and female.
The other most important gender role inequality in society is that of image. While it is commonly argued that there is increasing pressure on men to look good, and not just on women, it is safe to say that women do feel more of this pressure – not only in today’s society, but also have done throughout history. Women are constantly pressured to be what might be described as an “all-round package” – thin, attractive, intelligent, domestic…the list goes on. This image is perpetuated by the media. Women in the media are glamorous, famous, and usually very, very thin. Today’s society is becoming increasingly polarised, however. On one side, there are the celebrities and professionals, who are incredibly thin, polished, and glamorous. On the other, there are the apparent hordes of obese people that we keep being told about. An obesity epidemic! And then, in the middle, is the average woman, wondering where she belongs, in this world obsessed with weight loss – both to be achieved by those who don’t need it, so they continue not to need it, and by those who are supposed to need it, simply because being fat is seen as being undesirable and unhealthy, and they are not conforming to the cultural “norms”. However, these so-called norms are doing a lot more damage than good. Being constantly surrounded by media images of perfection, magazine articles on dieting and weight loss, and clothes which come in sizes that very few women could naturally fit into (referring, of course, to the hotly debated size zero, equivalent to a UK size four), makes healthy girls question their weight, feeling too fat to fit in with the trend of ever-shrinking celebrities such as Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan, and being scared to death of becoming obese like newspapers are constantly warning them against. In a society so obsessed with the size of women’s bodies - one way or another – is it so surprising that the number of women suffering from eating disorders is on the rise? It rose sharply in the 1980s and 90s as a result of the prevalence of leggy, emaciated supermodels, and it is still going. In 1992, 60,000 people were estimated by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to be receiving treatment for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa at any one time in the UK. However by 2000, the British Eating Disorders Association believed that the number receiving treatment was closer to 90,000, with many more incidences of undiagnosed eating disorders, particularly bulimia (British Eating Disorders Association, 2000). Bulimia is more common, and according to figures from the BBC’s website, it’s estimated to affect between one and two percent of women who are aged 15-40, with anorexia estimated to affect between one and five teenage women in every 100,000 (BBC, 2006). While men and women of all ages can be affected by eating disorders, it’s apparent that a large number of sufferers are female, and usually young. This could be interpreted as saying a great deal about our society and the way in which many factors affect the self esteem of young girls, but the constant presence of professionally dressed and made-up, airbrushed women (they don’t mention that in magazines) only serves to make those who are in the stage of their lives where they are most vulnerable to outside influence, particularly over their bodies – feel bad about themselves, because they simply can’t match up to these unrealistic, unhealthy, but apparently desirable, ideals. On the issue of body image, liberal feminists would probably say that girls and women should not be made to feel so bad about themselves that it leads them to take such drastic action, and that this is an example of their core belief: that “one’s private life should not be subject to relation by society.” (Humm, 1995, 151). However, the distinction between the liberal feminist belief that society should not interfere in people’s private lives, and their lack of similar thought on people’s lives in the public sphere is illustrated by Judith Butler: “Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension; constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.” (Butler, 2004, 21) Therefore, the liberal feminist view is that a woman’s body cannot be solely hers to ‘control’, if you will, because inevitably people will see and react to it. Fat-positive feminists, however, would be incensed. They believe – as their name indicates – that society’s disturbing trend towards unnatural thinness is inherently wrong. They believe that women are meant to be all different shapes and sizes, and that there is nothing wrong with being larger than the skinny waifs who adorn the catwalks, so long as you are healthy. Most women are simply not meant to be that tiny; according to a 1997 article by Kate Fox, “Even 25 years ago, top models and beauty queens weighed only 8% less than the average woman, now they weigh 23% less. The current media ideal for women is achievable by less than 5% of the female population – and that's just in terms of weight and size. If you want the ideal shape, face etc., it's probably more like 1%.” (Social Image Research Centre, 1997) Given that statistic, the fat-positive feminist beliefs are clearly more sensible. In this increasingly image-obsessed society, women would be well served to keep that in mind before they do some serious harm trying to starve themselves down to fit our unhealthy mould of body ideals.
In conclusion, the main features of gender inequality today are: work, education, and gendered expectations in society. The status of women in work is improving, but both liberal and fat-positive feminists believe the wage gap between women and men needs to be closed. Society needs to work on maintaining girls’ high standards of achievement once they have left school, to ensure that they fulfil their potential in the workforce, and in life in general. Traditional gender roles of mothers staying home and fathers going out to work need to change to keep up with the changes in society, particularly considering the issue of discrimination against women who are bucking the trend. And finally, body image needs to shift away from a focus on women’s bodies being thin, and towards the fat-positive belief that it’s perfectly fine to be whatever size they naturally are, because if they are healthy, that is all that matters.