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What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Sense and Sensibility: Gender and Power

For those of you who know me well can attest, I identify as a feminist. Talking about gender has indeed featured in many of my posts to date, such as "It's Not Sexism: It's Science". In fact, one of the most-read posts in Kaputall history is Men and Housework from way back in December 2011.

That said, I've been asked about why I haven't written one post detailing my overarching principles around my feminist identity. Instead, it's something that I intend to sketch out through posts about various topics. My reasoning is straightforward: feminism is complex and I don't have simple answers to what causes oppression and how to alleviate it. I hold contradictory views simultaneously and I'm rather flexible and circumstantial. My views and experiences are a microcosm of feminism as a movement - it's also disparate, paradoxical, and fluid. Women's history month just passed, and following the stories on my favourite feminist websites like Jezebel, Feministing, and The Atlantic gave me stark reminders of just how divisive talking about feminism can be. Just have a look at this article about different values in feminism across time and class.

Today I want to talk briefly about listening to a CBC radio discussion about women in the corporate world alongside a debate about the merits of chivalry. Both were carried on Q last Thursday.

First was a discussion with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who has made a significant career move by authoring a new book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her book tries to advance the discussion about gender equality, because she fears that the trend toward equality is stagnating. She points, for example, to the fact that in most western countries women hold only 5 per cent of top positions in the private sector.

Instead of focusing, as much academic work has, on the socio-economic barriers that women face, she attempts to view the problem from the lens of women "limiting themselves". She covers a wide range of issues, from women needing to be more aggressive, to needing to put success first, to embracing risk-taking. It's all quite convincing, actually, the notion of empowering yourself and bettering your social location. However, instead of talking about what's wrong with our patriarchal notions of gender and why we have to conform to these narrow boxes, she's effectively arguing that women should just be more like men.

The last element that gets me is whether or not her story reflects other people's experiences. There's a lot of discussion about this and it's a quagmire, so I'll tread lightly. I think it's simply fair to ask, is the story of one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful women truly representative of some type of universal female experience? And by extension, is her advice sound or even relevant?

The second piece was a debate about chivalry. Emily Esfahani Smith recently wrote a piece entitled Let's Give Chivalry Another Chance where she argued that there were benefits to chivalry, and that today's society is boorish and disrespectful to women. The value of chivalry is effectively predicated on the notion that a well-ordered world with rules is less confusing and therefore better for everyone. She asks is chivalry and inequality necessarily go hand-in-hand. She notes that women are not weaker than men in every aspect, but that gentlemanly behaviour is essential to combating objectification, assault, and other ills that she argues are the product of men not treating women with a chivalrous deference.

Opposing her in the debate was renowned psychologist Peter Glick, who argues that chivalry is a form of "benevolent sexism", something that is directly correlated to more hostile forms of sexism. Chivalry, he argues, is deeply rooted in the notion that women cannot take care of themselves. Women are, in deeply patriarchal societies, treated as though they are elevated so long as they conform to certain norms - the pedestal. If they do not fit the narrow definition, or if they fall off, there are often significant social consequences. Glick argues that chivalry is a terrible idea because of the power dynamic it establishes, and suggests that everyone should merely just be nicer when the circumstances are right, rather than just because someone is a woman.

I took some time to reflect after listening to both stories in order to try to understand how it is that they intersect. It's complicated because these two segments hit on so many different gendered aspects of modern society.

Both pieces address the question of equality, albeit from different perspectives. Sandberg argues that women need to embrace the characteristics that are attributed to men, while Esfahani Smith suggests that women should receive preferential treatment by virtue of being weaker in some ways. This gets at a central tenet to the broader gender debate: are men and women different? This is a substantial and controversial question, and one that spawns numerous others. Should men and women be treated differently? Should we strive for equity or equality? How do we do this?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I will make a few comments. I believe that there is a remarkable diversity within genders and a remarkable similarity across genders. Humans understand the world by creating categories, often to our great detriment. Chivalry, in my opinion, tacitly supports having widely different gender roles for men and women. Wealthy and powerful women in business, on the other end of the spectrum, often want the erasure of femininity. It's often necessary for these women to change their understanding of feminism in order to fit into a "market-normative world view". The notion that you can change market norms through participation has proved to be seldom effective. 

Navigating a line, somewhere in between eliminating gender differences and reducing it to a binary, is where virtually all feminists reside. There is a lot of tension in trying to figure out exactly where someone stands, but it's helpful to take note that they don't occupy one small space, but numerous flexible and paradoxical places simultaneously. That's perhaps my only constant in the way I conceptualise feminism.

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