The Blame Game — We Need to Stop Blaming Women for Gender Inequality

One of the more slippery tricks that the patriarchy employs to uphold itself is to further the illusion that gender inequality is really the fault of women themselves, and a natural and inevitable state of affairs. If the gender pay gap exists, it is argued, it is because women lack the ability to negotiate salaries; if the duties of childcare fall predominantly to women, it is said to be because women choose to stay at home; if women are underrepresented in government, it is the female disinterest in politics that takes the blame; if women are attacked by men, it is once again presented as somehow the woman’s fault. This blaming of women is a handy excuse to avert one’s gaze from the problems of gender inequality; if it can be framed as something that is caused by the very people who are its victims, then it can be more easily dismissed and ignored, and members of the dominant group are spared feelings of guilt or responsibility.

Of course, blaming women for everything, or putting inequality down to women’s individual choices, obscures the very real discrimination that women face on a day-to-day basis, and conceals the societal pressures behind the choices that women make. Let’s explore three myths that seek to blame women for gender inequality, and see why they should never be allowed to go unchallenged.

 

Myth 1: Women are generally less successful in their careers than men are because they don’t negotiate for their salary, and are not assertive enough.

From jesadaphorn, freedigitalphotos.net

From jesadaphorn, freedigitalphotos.net

This myth is an absolute favourite of the business world, and is the foundation of countless ‘inspirational’ books for women such as Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, Gail Evans’ “Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success that Women Need to Learn”, Lois Frankel’s “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers”, among many others. The recurring theme is that women are currently going about their careers all wrong, and while there is usually a cursory nod to the existence of sexism, the gist of the message is that it is women’s behaviour that needs to change, and if only we could act more like men, gender inequality in the workplace would slowly disappear.

What makes this idea so popular is that there are indeed documented differences between the way women and men behave at work. For instance, in a study by Babcock, it was found that while 57% of men attempt to negotiate their salaries, only 7% of women do. And when it comes to communication in the workplace, Deborah Tannen has found that women tend to be more apologetic, gentle, and indirect. Such discoveries have been pounced on eagerly as evidence of women’s cluelessness in the workplace, as evidence of institutional sexism being merely a small factor in comparison to the enormity of women’s mistakes.

Certainly, women behave differently from men in the workplace. But is this difference in behaviour really a mistake on the part of women, or is it simply a way of adapting to the difference in the way women are treated and responded to at work? Study after study has shown that while men are rated favourably for behaving in an assertive, even aggressive manner, women acting in the same way are disapproved of and punished, be it through social sanctions like isolation and name-calling, or by being rejected for promotions and denied career opportunities. The same is true when it comes to negotiating salaries. Most women choose not to negotiate for a very good reason — they believe, rightly, that any attempt to negotiate will reflect badly on them, something that would not occur to the same degree if they were male. As researcher Hannah Bowles says, “This isn’t about fixing the women. It isn’t about telling women, “You need self-confidence or training.” They are responding to incentives within the social environment… You have to weigh that against social risks of negotiating. What we show is those risks are higher for women than for men.”

Another aspect of this myth that I find irksome is the assumption that the current dynamics of the workplace are immutable, even desirable. There is no link between confidence and competence, and if there is one, research suggests it is an inverse relationship, meaning that it may be the most incompetent individuals who seem the most confident (look up the Dunning-Kruger effect). Quieter qualities like cooperativeness and empathy are essential to good leaders, yet are sadly too often overlooked, or scorned as ‘feminine traits’. In a society where a culture of aggression, over-confidence and reckless risk-taking led to the financial crash, are these really the behaviours that we want to continue to promote?

 

Myth 2: Women take on more housework and childcare responsibilities because they choose not to work outside the home.

from freedigitalphotos.net

From tiverylucky, freedigitalphotos.net

This myth is annoyingly persistent, and it’s not hard to see why. To some, there is a pleasing symmetry and fairness in the idea of women and men occupying different spheres of work — she in the home, and he in the workplace, happily toiling away at their respective tasks. Yet, not only does this completely erase same-sex couples and non-traditional living arrangements, the idea that women shoulder the brunt of domestic responsibilities within the family in exchange for men working outside the home is completely inaccurate.

While women have been making greater gains in the workplace, with more than 40% of women now taking on the role of primary breadwinners, the division of labour when it comes to domestic chores has not shifted. Women working full-time do more than three times as much housework as men working full-time; even more appallingly, in households where the female partner is the primary breadwinner and the male partner does not work, domestic chores still fall to the woman. Women do not do the bulk of the housework because they spend less time in paid employment, they simply do the bulk of the housework, full stop.

The second part of this myth is the concept of a woman’s ‘choice’ to stay at home, combined with a man’s ‘choice’ to seek paid employment. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that might lead to this choice, starting with maternity and paternity leave. In the UK, women can generally take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, while paternity leave is only 2 weeks long (though this may hopefully be changed next year). When a heterosexual couple expecting a baby discusses future working arrangements, what makes economic sense? For the mother to stay home with the baby of course. And when one partner has to stay home permanently or work part-time, who will it be? Given that the mother has already spent close to a year caring for the child and is thus a lot more comfortable with the routine of childcare, added to this the fact that the female partner is likely to be earning less than the male partner, owing not only to the gender wage gap but men’s socialised reluctance to be the lower earner in the relationship, plus societal expectations of what a good mother should do, and society’s mocking of men who decide to stay home… given all this and more, it is hardly a surprise that most households fit neatly into the pattern of the man being the primary breadwinner, and the woman taking full responsibility for the domestic sphere. Can this really be said to be women’s free choice at all?

 

Myth 3: Women’s clothing and behaviour lead to sexual assault.

And now we come to the most painful myth of all. On average, 404 000 women are victims of sexual offences every year in the UK, compared to 72 000 men, and 98% of perpetrators are men, making this a crime that is heavily gendered. However, society seems to think that it is women who are to blame for this state of affairs, and up to us to prevent sexual assault. Even as a child, my friends and I were familiar with all the rules we had to live by, and these messages were drummed into us again and again — wearing short skirts leads to sexual assault; drinking leads to sexual assault; going out alone at night leads to sexual assault; taking lifts from strangers leads to sexual assault; flirting or ‘sending mixed messages’ leads to sexual assault; having many sexual partners leads to sexual assault. We were told, in subtle (and often not-so-subtle) ways, that if we were to do any of the things above, we were “asking for it”, and were being stupid, and had no one to blame but ourselves, for “what did we expect, really”?

Except it isn’t women who are causing rape and sexual assault. Women have been assaulted while wearing anything, from dresses, to jeans, to hoodies, to burqas. Women have been assaulted when drunk or sober. And women have been assaulted anywhere, be it a deserted alley, or the bedroom of a trusted friend, or at a crowded party. And there is nothing women can do to prevent these assaults, for they are not our fault. We do not cause them, and so we cannot stop them.

 

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These three myths are only a small selection of the myriad ways in which women are blamed for manifestations of gender inequality, and for gender inequality itself. From a young age, boys are taught to exert control over their world, through building, inventing, fighting, and being aggressive. Girls, on the other hand, are taught to internalise this control, to master not our surroundings but ourselves, through dieting, cosmetics, fashion, and being agreeable. Too often, then, women are told to change ourselves, and that if we do not succeed in this society, then it is we who must readjust, and not social structures and societal attitudes that are flawed. This habit of blaming women has gone on far too long, and it is only once we shift our focus from women’s ‘mistakes’ to analysing and overhauling unequal power structures in society, that any real progress can be made.

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On #YesAllWomen, and the Discomfort of ‘Good Men’

YesAllWomen

 

Following Elliot Rodger’s hate crime against women (yes, I know many news reports seem to have missed the misogynistic message he was sending, I know Wikipedia has decided to classify it as generic violence instead of violence against women, and I know The Good Men Project has decided it was really all about virginity, but make no mistake, it was a hate crime nonetheless), women all over the internet rose up with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, sharing stories of misogyny and sexual violence, pointing out how the little and not-so-little experiences that women are subjected to on a regular basis combine to create a society in which a killer like Rodger is made.

Somewhat predictably, there has been resistance from men reluctant to acknowledge the sexist culture that surrounds us; more specifically, they are uncomfortable with the idea that they, with their ‘harmless banter’ or only slightly sexist behaviour, could be complicit in a hate crime of such immense proportions.

One example of this is this piece by T.J Holmes, who believes that the hashtag is unfairly placing blame on men who consider themselves good men, who have never attacked women and probably never will, who are only guilty of what he sees as innocuous sexist behaviours, such as giving a woman their arm, or getting women to pass through doors before themselves. He states that “there is a huge gap between the man who catcalls a woman walking down the street and the man who opens fire on her”, and that #YesAllWomen has somehow led to a confused population of women who are unable to see the distinction between these two actions.

Yet, as someone who has followed the hashtag quite closely over the last week, I see no evidence of this “sense that all sexism is created equal”. There is nothing on the hashtag to suggest that shooting a woman is just the same as whistling at her on the street. What I have seen though, over and over again, is women asserting that we must connect the everyday sexism and harassment that women experience, with the underlying attitude of male entitlement to female bodies, thereby creating the conditions necessary for Rodger’s hatred of women to take root and flourish in that particular way. I have seen women point out how charged with fear many romantic / sexual interactions are for women, where it is often hard to tell if rejecting a man’s advances will lead to an uneventful evening, or an encounter with violence. I have seen women unite in their common experiences of being women in a man’s world, and call on men to take the responsibility of tackling the misogyny rampant in socialised masculinity. Nowhere have I witnessed the notion that a man who has regressive beliefs about being a “gentleman” is exactly the same as a mass murderer, which makes Holmes’ opening lines puzzling, to say the least.

And let’s not forget that we live in a world where women are brought up to expect and get over unwanted touching in bars and clubs, a world where a woman’s clothing and behaviour can be blamed for her rape, and where an unambiguously woman-hating killer is called a ‘madman’ rather than an extremist in a misogynistic society. Given this background, can you imagine that from now on, due to #YesAllWomen, any man who engages in sexist behaviour will be viewed and treated as no better than a mass murderer? Of course not. The idea that this is a serious concern for men is patently ludicrous.

I’m not surprised that many men are feeling uncomfortable after reading tweets on the #YesAllWomen hashtag. If one has lived one’s life completely oblivious to the systemic sexism that pervades everything we do, it can be a shock to suddenly realise that you, a well-meaning, kind-hearted man who would never hurt a fly, are complicit in a culture that has led to horrific instances of male violence against women. In fact, I’m glad of this discomfort. I would find it much more worrying if all men read about the harassment, fear and violence that women experience, and felt absolutely nothing. But don’t pretend that this discomfort is in anyway comparable to the actual lived reality of women’s oppression. Don’t ask women to censor their words and hide the truth because it makes some men feel unfairly blamed. Recognise how tiny sexist acts, while so seemingly harmless to you, can add up and add up and add up, to a culture where women are assigned inferior status, and hate crimes against women are a dime a dozen. Then take that discomfort and use it to drive change, rather than taking the easy path of denial.

When Women and Girls Are Attacked by Men, We Blame Everything Except Male Violence

Last Tuesday night, two teenage girls from India went out into the fields, looking for a place to relieve themselves, due to the lack of toilets in their village. On their way, they were brutally attacked by a group of men, gang-raped, and murdered. Their bodies were found the next day hanging from a tree, in a sickening display of complacence that speaks volumes not only about the men’s arrogance and lack of shame, but also their sense of entitlement to female bodies. Activists in India have rallied in protest against the problem of sexual violence in the country, and villagers have condemned police inaction relating to the incident.

Yesterday, an article appeared in The Guardian, citing the lack of basic sanitation as the main reason for the death of the girls. It was the lack of toilets in their village, the article suggests, that resulted in the attack, never mind the perpetrators themselves, never mind the global ideal of masculinity that accepts, even encourages, violence in men, never mind the global culture of misogyny that normalises violence against women.

Don’t get me wrong — I do believe that basic sanitation is crucial. It is of the utmost importance for reasons of hygiene, leading to cleaner surroundings, safer food and water, lower rates of diarrhoea and illness, lower risk of snake bites, and lower mortality rates. Access to toilets provides privacy and dignity, and having a toilet in schools can encourage girls to continue with their schooling after hitting puberty. And with around 2.7 billion people around the world without access to basic sanitation, the problem is a pressing one.

Neither do I deny the fact that many men choose to attack women when they are seeking a secluded spot in the fields to relieve themselves. Yet, to focus exclusively on the circumstances surrounding the attack, while ignoring the main source of the attack (the perpetrators), fits into a pattern that feminists have been decrying for decades — society’s propensity to treat male violence as an accepted fact of life, to make allowances for it, to try to avoid it, and to attempt to redirect it. None of these can keep women safe.

Around the world, men have been raping and murdering women in every conceivable situation. They have carried out violence against women in their own homes, on the street, in clubs, at parties, in hostels on a school trip, on public buses, in school toilets, in high school hallways, at concerts, while camping, during piano lessons, in taxis, during a football game, the list goes on. Women can avoid going to dark and secluded areas, we can stay at home, we can take all the precautions we have been told to take. No wearing short skirts, no going out alone at night, no getting drunk in public, no trusting a strange man. But as long as men continue their violent behaviour, as long as they continue to rape and murder women, then — naturally — women will continue to be raped and murdered. They will be raped and murdered no matter where they are, no matter what they happen to be doing at the time.

The global epidemic of male violence against women must end, but we will never end it by refusing to place our finger on the key issue at hand, the link between socialised masculinity and violence. If we continue to ignore this, then the only world where men no longer attack women will be a world where women and girls do not exist at all.