Claire Lehmann

The corporate world is not the only world

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Women, as a collective, earn about 80% of what men do in their lifetimes. This oft cited statistic is the smoking gun which proves that sexism still runs rampant in our workplaces. Or is it?

What if the statistic represents another reality? In Australia 21% of men work very long hours – over 50 per week – while only 6% of women do. The motivation to work overtime affects pay. But what if, on average, women have better things to do than work 50 hours a week despite being aware that they might earn more?

When surveyed, women who work full-time, on average, say they would like to scale back their hours and work less. Men don’t. Women like working, but they don’t particularly like working full-time and they especially don’t like pulling long hours required by overtime. This is a real preference found over and over again in economics research throughout different countries. We can tie ourselves in knots figuring out if such a preference is born of cultural or biological proclivities; but whatever the cause may be, it is a preference that seems to be ubiquitous.

Looking at Australian data, economists have found that women who are partnered experience their life satisfaction to be reduced by working full-time and especially so if their weekly hours are greater than 40. In contrast, male life satisfaction is significantly increased by working full-time and especially so if they are working 35-50 hours.

Is the preference to work fewer hours than men evidence of sex discrimination? Or is it evidence that women have better things to do than spend their lives in dreary office cubicles? Throughout art and literature the sum of human experience has never been reduced to work and career. And for most people it’s obvious that there is much more to living than being a model employee. Yet we remain perplexed and baffled by the gender pay gap as if it were not in many ways a reflection of rational choice to prioritise other aspects of living.

Confusion arises because the effects of feminism and capitalism on society can be hard to tease apart. After World War II, the women’s movement hitched a ride with a burgeoning twentieth century Western economies. Women had been afforded rights as adult citizens in the first wave, but empowerment in the sixties meant independence from the husband, which meant financial independence, which meant getting a job.

When Betty Friedan articulated that there was “a problem with no name,” the crux of the problem was women’s inability to enjoy careers in the new economy. In the 1950s, smart, bourgeois women were bored.

Breaking down walls that prevented women from exercising their intellectual selves required getting rid of overt discrimination through enacting legislation and workplace policies. Preventing women from being fired for getting married, for example, was a major step. Outlawing institutional sex discrimination, and encouraging women into elite, prestigious professions that were formerly off-limits, were major achievements.

But for all of these milestones, the economic shifts that made careers for women a viability, are seldom acknowledged. Capitalism and medical technology (the pill) provided the apparatus for women’s independence; consciousness raising provided an impetus. Women’s shift into paid work was not solely the achievement of the feminist activist; it was also a byproduct of industrialisation and an emerging consumer culture.

When men were at war in the 1940s, women went to work without ceremony and without the prompting of Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan. But central to this transformation was the necessity of such work. Women went to work because they had to, not because they were chasing self-actualisation. And there is a big difference between going to work out of necessity and going to work because one is bored.

Arguably, not all women will be bored without competitive careers. In fact, perhaps many women are now more bored than ever, sitting in air conditioned offices attending to tedious administrative tasks in unfulfilling government jobs. Perhaps deep down they would prefer being elsewhere.

Activist movements such as Occupy are based on the philosophy that we should resist all-out careerism and materialist values in order to live sustainably with our environment. Would we really want to encourage more women to compete with men by working such long hours, when we know that such hours impair health, compromise safety and increase stress? Is selling this type of “independence” simultaneously asserting the idea that the corporate world is only world?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that what women want and what feminists want do not aIways align. In the US for example, more women than men are opposed to late-term abortion. In the Netherlands, women prefer working part-time and have resisted efforts by activists to reorganise the industrial landscape to alter this. Choices that women make are often dismissed by feminists who argue that women cannot climb the corporate ladder – due to the patriarchy -and so they (subconsciously) choose not to. The logic here is that even educated women who have been raised by careerist mothers do not know their own minds. According to such discourse, women live without freewill, as passive receptacles of socialisation. It is a picture of a helpless humanity that would be depressingly bleak if it were not so insulting.

Women are just as able to make valid, creative and politically powerful choices as men. The whole point of feminism was to enable, then to celebrate, this fact. If it means working less, or saving one’s energies for things other than economic productivity, then so be it. In 1986, Betty Friedan, told the New York Times, “What we need are real choices. And I don’t want to hear women saying one choice is more feminist than another.”

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