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.
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.
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.
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.