Monday, June 10, 2013

The Elusive Pursuit of Gender Parity

Two separate, long-standing arguments usually make feminists angry to the point that steam shoots out of their ears. These are casual observations based on incorrect information. I feel the same way myself when people ask me whether or not I can wear zippers (I'm not Amish). When someone states that members of my religious group died out decades ago, I'm often a little offended. Similarly, the public may think that feminism died out with Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan. I may not be responsible for the ignorance of others, but I can do more to ensure that others know who I am and what I believe.

I return to the arguments with which I began this piece. One of them asserts, in all earnestness, that equality for women has already been achieved. No further effort is needed. The battle has been won. If only this were so. Nothing could be further from the truth, though it is worth noting that gender equality is now further along than it once was. We cannot rest here on our laurels, because there is too much unfinished business ahead of us.

The second argument warns young women to not wait too late to have children or a family. It states that basic biology and gender essentialism cannot be escaped. Women are women, after all, despite the conventional wisdom. A life of dull, hollow nothingness is the reward for women who do not partner up and start procreating. Professional women who place too much emphasis on their career will eventually find themselves fifty years old, single, alone, and living with cats.

Gender parity has not yet been reached. If it had, articles like these would not be written and published frequently. We are thankful, certainly, for the strides of our mothers and grandmothers. Even so, women still make less than men do in many professions and earn less as a percentage of wage earners.

Men have, over time, in a million ways, sought to concentrate their power and influence to ensure that women are not valued as they should be. This is a conversation we probably need to be having, but it has proven easy to brush aside. Regardless of the message and how it is stated, the concept never gains much traction with the public. For many, these are women's issues, merely a niche discourse for those with a personal, even academic interest.

Every year I read story after story by writers who would swear on a stack of Bibles that their views are correct and unerring. Like clockwork, someone dusts off an old trope that is not quite an admonition, yet not quite an impending hissy fit, albeit with a new back swing. Their intention, as writers and also as certified experts, might only be to see the response produced; they might view it as a measuring stick for how far we've progressed, or not progressed as an American society.

Or, they might chock their their column full of lofty, soaring rhetoric, disguising its real purpose. That is to say, the real message they share is a semi-smug treatise about wisdom and life lessons yet to be learned, questioning the maturity of a younger set.

We don't always talk about the gender dynamics within our country as they affect each part of our societal framework: industries, career fields, social groups, and houses of worship. Three years ago, I worked an internship with a small PAC allied with the Democratic Party. The Executive Director, as well as her assistant, were both women. They were intelligent and capable workers and I didn't mind putting out a solid effort alongside them.

Nor did I mind that they sought to bring in more workers and more allies who were women. I did my job and provided the research and political data they asked for, and both of my bosses made a point to let me know how much they appreciated my work. I've always had an appreciation for praise, especially so to reward a job well done.

While I was working there, I overheard numerous conversations, some I probably shouldn't have. Still, space was an issue, as we were thrown together in small office and sometimes doors were not closed firmly. The Executive Director spoke once, quite flustered, about the perils of interacting with the union leaders who formed a large part of our coalition of donors.

She'd learned not to be too nice during phone calls, because that might be mistaken as flirtation on the other end. I can still hear her openly questioning precisely how to properly phrase e-mails in ways that could not be misconstrued as anything beyond complete business.

There were other spaces in my life where women comprised the majority. Schools, I have found, are still predominately run by women, though the minority of men employed there tend to gravitate towards administration. The first few years of my life were spent nearly exclusively in the company of women. They were teachers, custodians, assistants, and administrators.

I never even had a male teacher until I was in middle school, and even then having men who taught school was unusual. The only men I ever saw on any frequent basis for much of my childhood were usually P.E. teachers or coaches, but then that was expected.

My Quaker Meeting (many Friends use the word "Meeting" rather than "Church") is predominately female. The committee I clerk contains twice as many women than men. The major decisions decided upon in each leadership group, and often the Meeting as a whole, are usually made by women. This has been true for decades.

The last two people who held the leadership role prior to the one I currently inhabit were women. When I work to finalize and finish Meeting business, most people I speak to are women. None of this bothers me.

Having said that, I often wonder if it is fair to use these circumstances and personal experiences as proof of a greater end. I wonder if these situations speak to the feasibility of placing more women in positions of authority. I would like to say that, from what I've observed, there is no reason to fear complete parity between men and women.

My generational attitude is very different from what came before me. I'm not sure if the overriding fear of those impeding change is that of a pathological need for control, a fear of change, or a zero-sum game attitude. It might be a little of all three.

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