Is Woman Still The Nigger Of The World? - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Is Woman Still The Nigger Of The World?

Is Woman Still The Nigger Of The World?

Published June 27, 2003

“How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty than the most accomplished beauty!” When an early British feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, published her treatise “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792, her views on working women, as on everything else, were somewhat ahead of their time. But the past few decades have brought a dramatic change. Women started first to trickle, then to flood into the labour market, pushing up their share of the workforce. Within the Nordic region – where government supplied day-care is the norm – women are now almost half of the employed with Iceland ranking pretty high with an impressive 47% female workforce. In the first world, paid jobs for women have become the new norm.

At the beginning of the last century, few countries had universal suffrage for men, let alone women. By the early 1920s the Nordic countries, America and Germany among others had given their women the right to vote. Last Thursday, Icelandic women (and some men) celebrated the fact that on June nineteenth 1915 a constitution for Iceland was signed by Christian X, the king of Denmark giving women (over forty) the right to vote and run for parliament. Although they were not the first to get the right to vote, they certainly weren’t the last. Their sisters in England waited until 1928, in France till 1944, Greece 1952 and amazingly the women of Portugal were kept out of the voting booths until 1978.

Is it better to be a woman now than 89 years ago? In many ways, the answer has to be yes. In the affluent part of the word, women have got the same legal rights as men; to vote, to work, to do as they damn well please. They have equal access to education at all levels, and make full use of it (two thirds of the students that graduate at Iceland’s biggest university are women). If they are working, they are protected up to a point by equal-pay and equal opportunities legislation. Sexual harassment at work may not have stopped dead, but it is being more effectively curtailed – if only because of the risk of legal fees and damages. Some of these changes may have been speeded up by feminism, however tedious that may have seemed at its height. But the most effective instrument for changing attitudes has been women’s mass exodus from home to workplace. For most women in most of the richer countries, being “just a housewife” has become a thing of the past.

It’s always lonely at the top, but if you are a woman it can be utterly desolate. Whether in politics, business, the professions or academia, the top layer everywhere is almost exclusively male. This may not come as a surprise in countries where few women work, but it is also largely true, and more baffling, in America and in the Nordic region, where nearly half the labour force is female. Even though discrimination has been systematically erased from our laws, women are still pretty far from catching up in a few profound ways. In the political arena for instance, women are clearly gaining ground but the equality line is still far off. Of the 63 recently elected members of the Icelandic parliament, only 19 (30%) are women – down from 22 after the last election. Within the EU the numbers are even worse, women make up only about 20% of national Parliaments in most member states. France and Greece have the most pathetic gender ratio with 8,3% and 8,7% respectively. The Nordic countries are in a league of their own with Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland all boasting at least 37% female representation in their parliaments, way ahead of their central and southern European allies.

When it comes to national governments, the statistics rise slightly compared to parliament. Within the EU member countries, almost 25% are female with the Nordic countries again leading the pack. Sweden’s ministers are fifty-fifty male and female, with Denmark Norway and Finland all heading in that direction. Compared to their Viking cousins the Icelandic situation is pretty striking – only two of twelve ministers (a sad 16%) in the government are women. It’s only fair to note, though, that this will change slightly in fifteen months when there will be a reshuffle of the ministries, which will raise the number of female ministers to three or perhaps four, depending on how the dice rolls.

But even in the progressive north where the ministries are filling up with women, more often than not they get the “soft” jobs such as health, education, labour, social affairs and culture. The heavyweight portfolios such as foreign affairs, finance and justice almost invariably go to men – Iceland, for example, has never had a woman PM and of the two women ministers now in office, one is running the recently established and still fairly minuscule, environment ministry. Finland is the only country where at some point a woman has held every single portfolio. Finland’s first female prime minister, Anneli Jaatteenmaki, has just resigned, however, after just two months in office following a scandal triggered by a presidential aide’s admission that he had leaked government information to her at her request on talks about Iraq between her predecessor, Paavo Lipponen, and US president George Bush. Women prime ministers that actually sit out their term, such as Britain’s notorious Margaret Thatcher, remain as rare as hen’s teeth.

Although there has been progress in the political arena – albeit slow and perhaps disappointing – some say that since our society is increasingly being run by not politicians but businessmen the real focus should be on who’s running the businesses. Perhaps surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between the number of women in politics and the number of women in high-level management posts. In Germany, for example, 30% of all MPs are women, but a recent survey of the 70,000 largest companies showed that women’s share of top executive and board positions was only 1-3%. In America, which is generally thought to be a decade or more ahead of Europe on such matters, women hold about 10% of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies whereas in the House of Representatives women have a share of only 12.6% and in the Senate just 9% which is far behind most of their friends in old and new Europe. In Iceland, women CEO’s are few and far between, and the bigger the business, the less likely you are to find a woman running the show. A quick look at the boards of the companies listed at the Icelandic stock exchange reveals that for every woman, you can find at least twenty men. In a society increasingly ruled by big business, women are still clearly out of the loop.

Does it matter who’s in charge? Is there really still such a long way to go? As it turns out, the answers largely depend on whom you ask.

Most people would probably argue that gender biased decisions, are decisions that are based on arbitrary and illogical factors that can be linked directly to the sex of the person involved. In this sense, it’s discrimination if and only if a person of either sex is rewarded or punished for something that can’t be traced to something that explains and validates that decision. According to this view if women are, for instance, more likely to quit their jobs to raise children, then the employer is well within his rights if he decides to pick a male employee over an equally, or even better, qualified female one, since this is simply in the best interest of the company. This view is usually referred to as the difference approach to sexual discrimination.

But this approach has come under attack. Many equal rights advocates say that sexual discrimination is woven into our social fabric. Because even if individuals had equal rights to pursue the roles they wanted (which they don’t), this doesn’t allow for the fact that these roles were predominantly defined and created by men –A reflection of their values and ideas. With this approach we are simply giving women the chance to compete as men. This approach has usually been referred to as the dominance approach to sexual equality.

A recent study by the Centre for Gender Equality in Iceland revealed that women get on average only about 70% of the salary of the typical male. The study also revealed that of the missing 30% about one third can be attributed to the fact that women simply get paid less for the same jobs as men (this is what the difference approach theorists want to rectify). The rest is accounted for by the fact that typical female professions pay less than the typical male professions. For some reason, the professions that men choose (finance, engineering, computer science) tend to be more valued by society than the typical female professions (teaching, nursing).

So what’s the conclusion? As I said earlier, it depends: If you’re a right wing “the market is always right” type, you would choose the difference approach and say that there’s a fairly short way to go but rest assured, the invisible hand is working it’s magic and the problem will soon rectify itself. If, on the other hand, you’re a left wing “justice should prevail” kind of gal (or guy) then you opt for the more radical dominance approach and assert “screw this, where’s the revolution?”

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