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?
Let’s fast-forward to the modern day, and look at job prospects in the Canadian prairies, since that’s something I know a little about. I come from a large extended family and many of my cousins are anywhere from one to 15 years out of high school, looking to establish their careers. But there’s a sharp demarcation along gender lines. Most of my female cousins are training for teaching or nursing, requiring four or five years of university education, respectively. They’ll be well-paid in these professions for this investment, making more than $30 an hour (minimum wage around here is currently $10 an hour).
The more ambitious boys in my family are looking into skilled trades. Rather than investing five years and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, they’ll learn primarily on the job, as paid apprentices, and the provincial government will likely cover most or all of their tuition costs. In three or four years, they’ll be journeymen and making roughly the same as the future nurses and teachers, who are still paying for and attending school.
This isn’t a knock of carpenters or electricians, but it has to be pointed out that women don’t seek out easier, less valuable, and therefore less high-paying jobs. Rather, fields that have been historically dominated by women seem to be valued less, despite the high degrees of training and work required. It’s easy to not notice this if you’re not the one affected, but come on guys, there’s a real disparity here and it’s not okay.
How about a more direct comparison: within my province, cosmetology and hairdressing are also considered skilled trades. The formal training before an apprenticeship starts is similar to what a carpenter or plumber undergoes. The pay is not even close.
Yet one more comparison: fresh out of high school (which may include drop-outs as frequently as graduates), young men can find jobs as power line technicians, with a couple months on-the-job training, or working on oil or natural gas pipelines. They can clear $100K a year hereabouts, if they don’t mind some overtime and travelling for part of the year. A high school dropout can easily make more money than his professional wife at the top of her pay scale — a teacher holding a masters degree or doctorate in education, for example.
And if a women has the same minimal education as these men? Then it’s really rough. Minimum wage at a Wal-Mart, or if they’re lucky, waitressing or something else that involves tips.
You might say that, theoretically, women have all the same opportunities as men, they just choose not to pursue them. But let’s dispense with theory. It’s been empirically demonstrated that women of almost any level of education or income do worse relative to men of similar background. In practical terms, a man’s BA is worth the same as a woman’s PhD. Men are groomed culturally for high-paying fields while women are not. Is this sexist? Duh.
It’s sexist because men teach their little boys how to use all the things in their tool shed, but don’t think to do the same with their daughers. It’s sexist because women are expected to take time off to raise a family and men aren’t. It’s sexist because women are never made to feel like certain jobs are options for them. Most importantly, it’s sexist because the fields in which women have had a significant presence are the fields which pay less relative to the qualifications needed for the job.
I don’t know why this is so rarely spelled out, but it needs to be. Men need to understand how the system is fixed in our favor until we finally get shame-faced enough to do our part in fixing it.
Photo credit: Howard Hollem