8 April 2020, Amsterdam
Can a Woman Have It All?
So wrote the respected philosopher Aristotle. He was one of the first to develop a theory about the inferiority of the female sex, yet similar ideas have also been reflected in the dominant ideologies of the 11th and 12th centuries, not only by Christian philosophers, but also by Islamic and Jewish thinkers. It is a fact that Aristotle, as one of the most admirable thinkers in history, considers the feminine inferior. But even without it being explicitly stated, we can see that these ideas have persisted throughout time, transforming into commonly held beliefs and often preventing women from the seat of power, whether that be within the family or society at large.
In a late capitalist society, when we talk about power we are also talking about money. The socio-economic inequality between men and women is an issue that has characterized societies since early civilization. It is a notoriously complex issue which, according to Dollar and Gattie’s research for The World Bank, ties back to a myriad of factors such as nurture, socialization, political inequality, religion and legal structures all of which have historically contributed to women’s capacity (or lack thereof) of generating economic value.
The story lies within the data of the World Value Survey (WVS). With its headquarters in Vienna, the WVS is a “global network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life”. The WVS has been conducting surveys on social and political values since 1981, giving any scholar or otherwise looking to use the tool plenty of data to work with. Additional, economics-related data is sourced from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, along with experts’ insights on the matter (which are both female).
However, at the root of our project is the WVS. The question which set our work into motion was: “Is it a problem if a woman earns more than her husband?”. On its face, it seems reasonable. We are all well-acquainted with the traditional gender roles which have led to the existence of this variable in the first place. However, in the ultra-capitalist climate of the modern world where financial independence is almost synonymous with freedom, it seems ludicrous that women’s paychecks would still depend on the fragility of the male ego and an out-dated vision of the nuclear family. As such, the question of who, if anyone, should be the main breadwinner, remains.
Here is the breakdown of the public’s answers, according to the 6th wave (2010-14) of WVS data.
Fig 1. The World Map “Problem if women have more income than husband in 2010-14” (World Values Survey)
A large split between the world’s opinions can be seen, with both expected and unexpected results. Religious and cultural reasons are the most likely culprits in many countries where women earning more is seen as a problem, or the issue is not cared about. However, is that all there is to it?
Ever since the 1920s, when many countries worldwide began to implement women’s rights to vote, women were finally on the path to be seen as equals of men in a society that traditionally had set-in-stone gender roles. This progression has continued throughout history, in what we refer to as waves of feminism. However, while the situation has improved greatly, some older issues are still present (such as reproductive rights and sexual harassment), and new ones have sprung up to take the place of those abolished. These issues include the public’s perception of women in high-earning careers, the difficulty for women to balance their personal life with the time investment needed for their career, and the progression of their career as a whole when compared to that of a man’s career.
Historically, men have consistently earned more than women but the ever-evolving market as well as social movements which fight for women’s emancipation have made way for new situations and dynamics where these roles are reversed. In 2018, Iceland made a mark in history, being the first country to have eliminated the gender wage gap, with multiple countries to have followed in its footsteps ever since. More and more women are becoming financially independent across the board to meet the demands of capitalist societies. While this may stimulate economic growth and further the status of women in terms of acquired capital, these scenarios nevertheless challenge the traditional distinctions between the roles of men and women within a family unit.
We can see that the structures of power have been built with men in mind. The arguments, historically, for why women have found themselves in this predicament can be roughly described as: a) women are inferior (the weaker sex), b) women are suited to motherhood (both biologically and psychologically) and c) women are less assertive. And while it may seem like men have the most to gain from the continued subjugation of women, that is not always the case. “It is important to note that prejudice against women in power occurs in both sexes,” says Dr. Daphne van der Pas, a professor at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences of University of Amsterdam. “For instance, if we look at stereotyping, as goes for most social minorities groups, many women also use stereotypes for women.”
The feminist mantras of our day seem to say: yes, women should have it all and they would if the patriarchy would stop holding them back. But is that really the case? Are men still to blame for sabotaging women like they are so eager to claim at first, or is there more to it? Is it possible women are standing in their own way, yelling ‘feminism’, ‘equal rights’ and such other near-utopian terms at the top of our lungs day-to-day, whilst blocking our paths to them ourselves? At what point does presumed inferiority turn into an inferiority complex?
Fig 2. Percentage of men and women against women earning more than their husbands worldwide, (World Values Survey)
Using data from all the available countries, slightly more men than women find it problematic if they are not the main breadwinners. However, the views on the variable “Is it a problem if a woman earns more than her husband?”, do show a pretty surprising trend – in multiple countries from all areas of the globe, no matter how technologically or economically advanced, more women than men find the female gender earning more than their husbands to be problematic.
The chart below shows this trend – in other words, the gender breakdown of people that are against women earning more than their spouses in countries where the majority didn’t have a problem with a female breadwinner.
Fig. 3 Gender breakdown of people against women earning more than their husband in countries where the majority doesn’t have a problem with a female breadwinner, (World Values Survey)
As we can see, this trend exists not only in countries with a small percentage of female leaders and high earners, such as Argentina, but also countries that are more westernised in their culture, and with higher percentages of female leaders and high earners, such as the Netherlands. Around 62% of people in Argentina who stated that they would find a female breadwinner problematic were women. In the Netherlands, a country that is commonly thought of as a bastion of progressivism, 53% of people who took issue with a woman earning more than her husband were women. While the percentages do differ, this trend still shows that many women themselves, disproportionately, believe that they should not be the main breadwinners of the household. Among the other countries where this statistic skewed to the side of the female gender are Germany (53%), Australia (58%), New Zealand (75%), Mexico (57%), Brazil (58.2%), Georgia (55%), Poland (55%), and the Philippines (53%).
As is often the case, the devil lies in the details. While it is much more convenient to throw all the baggage on men and simply say it’s because of the male dominated system, women have had voting rights in most developed countries since the 1920’s, so maybe it’s time to hold up a mirror and really look at how women see themselves and other women in a position of power. Perhaps, the uncomfortable reality of the situation is that emancipated women yearn more for the traditional family structure than ‘progressive’ men.
Could this be due to external perception? Would women really be more traditional than thought? Could they possibly shy away from being boss women just to avoid being shamed, or to, god forbid, risk our spouse feeling emasculated? Dr. Anneke Ribberink, a researcher of Political and Gender History at the Vrije Universiteit, would beg to differ. According to her, women experiencing status leakage due to earning more is not something that is still present in the Western world, as “this has to be qualified for different social and ethnic groups in society.”
The survey results show a surprising misalignment with ideas of feminism and gender equality in advanced countries. It is, however, also probable that the answers are influenced by large religious groups existing in these areas.
On the other hand, despite the western bubble which we have become so accustomed to, not all countries agree that it is acceptable for women to earn more than their partners. Countries such as India, Mexico, Turkey and Egypt still hold to the idea that men should be the providers for their families. This could speak to a view that the populations of these countries see women as not being as adequate in high positions, such as political leaders, CEOs, and so on. In many instances the views do not align with the reality of women’s participation in the job market. Turkey, for example, has seen a 36.7% increase in women who are the chief wage earners in their household since the 90’s, with the latest data showing that 45.40% of women currently occupy this role. While this trend continues to change over the years, there is still a long way to go in the amount of wages themselves – in 2018, the Estimated Earned Income for women in Turkey was less than 50% of that of men. And Turkey is not alone. The same can be seen in, for example, Mexico, with women earning, on average, half of what men earn. While improvements are being made over time, the wage gap and some public’s positive perception of it will take a long time to be properly abolished.
Fig 4. Percentage of countries against women earning more than their husbands divided by gender, (World Values Survey)
The data shows that progressive countries find it bearable to have a woman earning the big bucks, whereas more restricted, religious, and poorer countries would find it ridiculous to even consider that. However, unlike the progressive countries in which women can earn more than their husbands but don’t necessarily want to, the trend in countries which hold to traditional gender roles show that men are more keen on upholding the status quo. Countries that found it a problem to have the female partner being the main earner of the household included countries from Africa, South Asia and Latin America mainly. Out of these respondents, men (51%) seemed to have a higher agreement rate over women (49%). Moroccan and Ghanaian men found it the most unreasonable, both groups scoring over 60% of agreement. So, seemingly, even though people from these countries don’t think women should earn more, men are still more bothered by it than their spouses. This suggests that men still have the upper hand in countries which are determined to financially subjugate women but the women in progressive countries have a tendency to feel nostalgic for the ‘good old days’.
Political theatre has always been a good litmus test for the perception of women in power. In the last democratic debate of the 2020 primary which pitted Joe Biden against Bernie Sanders as they fought for the privilege to take on Donald Trump, there was a video question sent in by a voter about how the candidates would ensure that their cabinet would be able to provide advice and support for “women’s physical and financial health”.
Amy, the woman on-screen, looked to be in her early 50s, soft-spoken, referring to women as “the canaries in the coal mine of the conservative agenda”, and listing off a slew of issues in a modest yet confident tone. The issues listed were as follows: access to healthcare, domestic violence as it pertains to gun laws, disproportionate burden by bail requirements, social security cuts, and cuts to public education.
Bernie Sanders began to answer. He said that his “cabinet will look like America”, stating that it will reflect the 50% female population, a ‘common-sense’ kind of approach. He then went on to review his political record on a number of women’s issues such as abortion, health care, child care and wage equality.
Cut to Biden, it’s his time to respond. He states boldly out of the gate that if he has the chance to nominate a supreme court justice his nomination will go to a woman of color, a strategic move that’s meant to demonstrate how ‘above and beyond’ he is willing to go in order to ensure everyone has a fair shake . He follows that up with repeating Sanders’ testament of the cabinet “looking like the country” before casually dropping in that he is, in fact, committed to choosing a woman as his running mate, adding “there are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow”. Before he was done clumsily reminding voters of his involvement with anti-domestic violence legislation, which, in comparison to Sanders’ illustrious history seemed woefully meagre, Biden was interrupted.
“Mr Vice President”, the moderator’s voice is heard off-screen. “If I could just follow-up, just to be clear”.
Camera cuts to Dana Bash , a blonde woman with high cheekbones, wearing a pendant necklace and a structured, work-appropriate scarlet dress.
“You just committed here, tonight, if you get the nomination, your running mate will be a woman?” she asks, her eyebrows fighting against the botox to express their surprise.
“Yes.” Biden confirms.
The quintessential token. The proportional representative. Always the bridesmaid, never the president. Women seem to always require the power to be bestowed upon them. A queen by birthright is fine, but a female president is a step too far.
There were six female candidates running in this election, each with different beliefs, backgrounds and policy proposals. This won’t even be the first woman running as Vice President; we all remember Sarah Palin. Committing to choosing “a woman” seems reductionist and condescending. However, this is so often the way in which women consolidate power. “Women still have to prove that they are better than most men in their area and they have to work very hard.” says Dr. Anneke Ribberink .“Ambitious women should make use of the help from mighty men if possible. In the past this often worked well for some famous women politicians.”
Dr. Daphne van der Pas, also has some insight on the matter. When asked if it is possible for a woman to have it all, she stated “Yes, it is possible, but depending on the circumstances (and on our political choices) it may be harder than for men.”
One of those circumstances Dr. van der Pas is referring to, is the media. “The media, however, do respond differently to male and female candidates, for instance discussing clothing, physical appearance, and family roles more when covering female candidates, and discussing leadership characteristics more when covering men. This suggests that women would have to make up for the more superficial coverage to make sure they get enough substantive coverage on political issues.”
The art critic John Berger once formulated the differences between the genders by saying that men watch and women watch themselves being watched. However, in art this phenomenon is far less repulsive than in politics. In a game where the rules are, by default, to appeal to the masses, using women as ideological mannequins really comes off as bad taste.
This is far from a glitch in the matrix. “Some political functions (e.g., the presidency) have a stronger masculine connotation than others (e.g., representative)”, explains Dr. van der Pas. “Likewise, some situations (e.g., a terrorist attack) put people in a state where they have a stronger desire for a ‘masculine’ leader.”
This is not to say that women have not made considerable progress. In one of the most recent podcast episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience, a platform which caused Twitter havoc by endorsing Bernie Sanders earlier on, Eric Weinstein asked Joe who, out of the democratic line-up, he would feel the most comfortable leading the country during the pandemic crisis. “Tulsi”, Rogan replied without skipping a beat.
In her interview, Dr Ribberink said that “visible female politicians have a role-model effect and can slightly shift attitudes about women in power.” So will the abundance of female candidates shift the needle?
While American women are free and independent in theory, they are still less emancipated than many other countries. We see this clearly reflected in the data. In the US, only around 20% of the Congress and ministerial positions are occupied by women. In fact, in many countries, women are shown to believe that men are better political leaders at nearly the same rate as men.
Fig 5. Views on the statement ‘men make better political leaders than women’ by sex, (World Values Survey)
This can be narrowed down to several different factors such as religion, tradition or education. But the underlying issue remains the same: some women do not see themselves as leaders and as such, they perpetuate their own inadequacy. When asked if they agree that men make better political leaders than women, female WVS respondents from less westernised countries stated that they do agree with this statement. Women from countries such as Russia, Turkey, China, South Africa, and Nigeria tend to agree that they make worse political leaders than their male counterparts – for these countries, statistics of female agreement either hover around 50%, or go up to as high as 60-70% (in Turkey and Nigeria). These statistics are echoed in the leadership position divide in these countries – Turkey and Nigeria both have seriously low women leadership percentages. Turkey’s parliament is composed of 21% women, and only 4% of ministerial positions are occupied by the female gender. Nigeria displays similar statistics, with only 6% of parliament seats occupied by women, along with 14% of ministerial positions. On the other end of the spectrum, countries in which female respondents disagree that men make better political leaders than them, such as Sweden and Spain, are not only more westernised, but also reflect this in their leadership statistics – in Sweden, the percentages of women in parliament are close to 50%, similar to its ministerial positions. Spain also comes close to Sweden’s scores – women make up around 40% of parliament seats and ministerial positions in the country. As such, it is visible that, in the countries where women seem to be more ready for power, their resolve is echoed within the country’s gender leadership divides.
So, what now? Do women want to be powerful and successful, or not? Well, turns out they do, just not too much. Women want to be successful, but not too successful. Underdeveloped countries don’t allow opportunities for women to be political leaders and the providers of the family, but their women don’t seem to mind as much as one would imagine. Contrarily, in our advanced, westernized and feministic countries it appears that given the occasion and opportunity, we’d shy away from bringing home the bacon and ruling over it. However, societal roles will likely continue to shift with time.
By Kat Golubev, Ricards Klimovics, Fanni Kovács, Melody Kaagman