When I was an undergraduate and knew everything, I happily identified myself as left-leaning, environmentally-minded and a staunch supporter of “classical” feminism. Why the qualification? Because of course I believed in equal opportunity, equal rights and all the rest for women. Who wouldn’t? But women have all those things now, right? So what else is there to demand?
Actually, the sort of discrimination that is easiest to discover and to measure, where men are treated one way and women in the exact same position are treated another, still happens pretty frequently. It’s been well-established that when men are ambitious and ask for raises or take on leadership roles, it’s considered a virtue, while when women do it, it’s perceived in a less flattering way.
But it’s the more pervasive sexist mechanisms built into the wheels and gears of our society which are the most nefarious, because they’re invisible to most people. No company could get away with advertising for male and female engineers, offering two different salaries depending on sex. Yet, men and women with similar amounts of education tend to earn significantly different wages on average, and we have to ask why.
I used to hate these studies because they seemed full of holes. “Women and men with similar education” are compared, for example, but what qualifies as similar? If women tend to get English degrees and men tend to get engineering degrees, it’s no surprise that they earn differently, and easy to conclude that sexism has nothing to do with it. But this is wrong. We have to dig a little deeper.
Once upon a time, teaching was reserved almost exclusively for unmarried women. Most would do it for a few years, and leave the classroom once they’d found a suitable husband. (Life-long teachers were automatically denigrated as “spinsters”.) But around mid-century, that began to change. Men started going into teaching, and found the wages currently on offer lacking. It was one thing to give a woman a little pocket change as she whiles away the days pining for a husband, but a man needed a real paycheck. There’s a sharp upward trend in rate of pay for teaching at the same time that men started entering the profession.
Does this still sound like an imagined problem?
Photo credit: Howard Hollem
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