Monday, April 28, 2008

Chauvinism in America

A study from Harvard University last year found that of 168 nations worldwide, the United States is one of only four whose government does not guarantee paid maternity leave. The others, naturally, are Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papau New Guinea. Such is indicative of an oft-overlooked chauvinistic attitude in American society and economy, especially in the work place. The United States' overall lack of progressivity is shameful - in addition to not guaranteeing paid maternity leave, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, is the only western nation still to employ the death penalty, and was the only western nation not to sign the Kyoto Protocol. America's chauvinism, however, may take the cake as its least-redeeming feature, and is indicative of how much further the feminist movement in the United States has to accomplish.

Feminism in the United States is typically thought of as a vitriolic campaign of bra-burning and man-hating, but the real, and more important, feminist movement takes place amongst working women. By the mid-20th century women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and in turn, demanded increasing rights in the work-place. These women, mostly through the vehicle of labor-unions, secured more equal pay and undermined sexist hiring practices, but the structure of the American economy required more than simply equalizing wages. Although wages for women in the workforce are still substantially lower than for their male counterparts, wage-equalization in the United States has made reasonable progress over the last 60 years. The problems faced by women in the workforce today are more of a result of chauvinistic attitudes toward family structure and a woman's role rather than a woman's relative productive ability.

Women face a hard time in eliminating gender differences in the workplace because they are, in fact, different. Most notably, women become pregnant. Their primary role, in America's society, is that of a mother, not a worker. This attitude toward a woman's role in American society has resulted in insidious structural barriers for workplace gender equality. The absence of paid maternity leave is one of the most grievous examples. Pregnant women in the United States do not have special protection from adverse treatment by employers. One woman, it is reported in the WSJ by Sue Shellenbarger, was fired for "poor performance" while pregnant and was unable to prove that her bosses knew she was pregnant, thus having no recourse to compensation. It is striking that the burden of proof falls on the pregnant female worker, and not the employer who fired her. The choice in American society for women is clear: work, and forgo having children, or stay at home. In face of this, the feminist movement in America must succeed in going beyond gender equality - they must achieve special workplace rights for women.

If the chauvinism in the United States, particularly prevalent in the workplace, makes securing equal rights for women difficult, securing special rights is an apparent exercise in futility. This is terribly unfortunate. There are numerous progressive measures that should be taken in order to allow for more economic and societal security for women. Tom S. writes,
In most states, family leave policies are still appalling, day care is expensive, and working women's wages are stagnant. Women are disproportionately represented in the ranks of part-time and contingent workers, both sectors of the labor market that are volatile and insecure.
Women should be encouraged to work, not feel compelled to stay at home. One of the major arguments in favor of increased unskilled immigration is that it has provided cheap child-care workers, freeing up skilled American women to pursue careers. If this is the case, cheap or free day care would have even greater salutary effect. The French government provides universal free day care, and the results are striking. 64.3% of women in France are employed, compared to 59% of women employed in the United States. And this is despite the fact that France's unemployment rate is 7.5%, compared to America's 5.1%. Further, women are frequently not hired to upper-level management positions in the United States due to fears of lowered productivity resulting from their potential pregnancy. The United States government, of course, does little to alleviate such a problem - it does not offer protection to female workers, nor does it offer incentives for corporations to hire women to upper-level positions.

Being content with the status quo in American gender-relations is not satisfactory. Not only does America's lack of gender equality in the work-force have substantial effects on the economy (think of how much more productivity could be gained with increased labor-force participation from women), but it is a grave injustice in and of itself. The fact that older women and working women have disproportionately supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary is indicative of a feeling of discontent with the current state of gender affairs. They do, indeed, need to change.

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