Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Women and the glass ceiling
June 30, 2006

If the goal is to do what men do, then women still have a long way to go. We are creeping toward gender equality - at least the kind measured by big jobs and big money - at a glacial pace, and even losing ground on some fronts.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising given the findings of an international survey on the subject this month. The study by Catalyst - a U.S. non-profit that keeps an eye on women’s progress in the corporate world - found that around the world, people believe that women are better at “taking care” and men at “taking charge.”
Even countries approaching gender equity - socially minded places like Sweden and Finland - held that belief, Catalyst found. The findings provide at least one reason why women don’t make it to the top jobs: The world continues to think that men do those jobs better.
We all know women who have done exceptionally well in business and politics, of course, and men who are community-minded and nurturing. But I’ve come to think there’s some truth to women being a certain way and men being another. It could be argued that female workers are concentrated in the taking-care professions because they’re good at it. And what’s so bad about being good at “taking care”?
Probably nothing if all things were equal. But they’re not.
Being the type who takes care can, for instance, translate in the real world into looking after people for free: Your hard-charging partner; your children; somebody else’s children; eventually your aging parents - in most cases, nobody’s going to pay you for any of that. The ability to take care is a treasured societal value, but there’s no treasure attached.
If this were a world where money didn’t matter, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be the gender perceived as being better at “taking care.” If your fella is better at loping across the veldt in search of tomorrow’s supper and you’re better at maintaining the homefires and community connections, what’s to worry? If both roles are equally valued and rewarded, no problem.
Unfortunately, they aren’t. One path at least has the potential to lead to wealth and status. The other will barely keep you in pocket change.
Jobs that involve “taking care” don’t pay nearly as well as take-charge jobs, and are at the most risk of being cut in a downturn of government funding. Take-care types are rarely sought to run governments or chair major initiatives. That cuts them out of public policy and other decision-making.
On the home front, take-care work - raising your children, caring for a brother with a mental handicap, looking after your elderly mom in her final years - doesn’t pay a dime. In many cases, there’s even a financial penalty for doing the work, should the caregiver end up having to subsidize the cost of services for a family member in addition to providing free care.
The sticking points, then, are money and power. If being the gender that takes care paid just as well as if we’d taken charge, and garnered equal respect, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to just give into it. Maybe we could leave men to be men and women to be women - different but equal, and equally rewarded and valued for the work they do.
But knowing that the real world is nothing like that, you can understand why women’s organizations like Catalyst keep talking about the need to push more of us through the glass ceiling. Being classified as the gender that’s better at taking care than taking charge shuts women out of both the money and the decision-making.
What’s the value of a good mother? What is it worth to a society to have their old people cared for at home by family members? There’s an amount there somewhere, a dollar value for the work that’s being done. Past studies have tried to calculate bits and pieces of the complex cost issue, but no one has yet come close to establishing the worth of unpaid labour in our communities, most of it done by women.
Money talks. Perhaps this business of who takes care and who takes charge in our world needs to come down to costing out the actual worth of of the service, which would at least give us a starting point for discussions around tax breaks, wage programs and innovative strategies for the kind of work women do.
Sure, everybody talks a good game about being thankful for those who are good at taking care. What would take-charge types do without them?
But gratitude doesn’t pay the bills. If the world thinks women are good at caring, then we need to set a price to that work that puts it on par with the take-charge work of men. As long as everything’s equal, there’s nothing wrong with being different.

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