International Women’s Day
Last week – a week that included International Women’s Day – appropriately enough saw the role of women in our society making the headlines. Sadly, those headlines highlighted again the way that women are treated in a male-dominated society – less a matter of celebration than of shame.
First, we learned that the perennial and apparently immutable gap between men’s and women’s pay rates – so that men are paid more than women for doing exactly the same job – is not attributable to inherent gender differences in capability or to the varying roles that men and women fulfil in society but is primarily due to the attitudes of those who determine pay rates – and guess who has the most influence over that issue?
Women are paid less than men, in other words, because men – who predominate in positions of responsibility and constitute a sort of permanent oligarchy – decide that it should be so. As with so many issues of discrimination, it resolves itself into a matter of attitude – the attitude of those whose attitudes matter, in this case, men.
The pay gap is not a one-off issue; it is a reflection of the wider scene, a scene in which women are constantly put down and given less value than they deserve. In the same week, we (or most of us) were shocked at the Facebook boasts of Wellington schoolboys that they had raped unconscious young women, and at the sexual harassment of women teachers by another (and younger) group of schoolboys, also from Wellington.
That was followed by the findings of research into the impact of pornography on those (not always, but predominantly male) who watch it. Kiwis, it seems, are amongst the world’s most avid consumers of pornography, and what the research showed was that it could be regarded as potentially creating an addiction that causes psychological and emotional harm and, in particular, makes it more difficult for consumers to build full and respectful relationships with the opposite sex.
To complete a picture that is far from reassuring, we also had news that the legislation on domestic violence is to be amended to provide for paid leave for a short period to women whose employment is interrupted by damage and injury suffered as a result of domestic violence – a commendable reform in itself, but disturbing evidence of how commonplace domestic violence has become.
These reports are worrying enough indicators of how women are treated in New Zealand – particularly given our somewhat self-satisfied assumption, on the basis of our pioneering history in extending the franchise to women voters, that our society is one in which women are treated as fully equal citizens.
But what is also worrying is that, even when we make an effort to redress the wrongs suffered by women, we still cannot shake off the sexist assumptions on the basis of which that effort is made. I recently had occasion to experience at close quarters just such an instance. A young woman and mother had summoned up the courage to end a marriage in which she had suffered psychological abuse (or what is now sometimes called “coercive control”).
She was offered two opportunities to defend herself against attempts by her former husband to re-assert his control. First, she was required to attend a “mediation” with him – an occasion that proved to be merely an opportunity for him to try to reinforce the dominance and coercive control which had caused the problems in the first place.
And secondly, when her husband took her to court over an issue concerning access to the children, she found herself in a courtroom where not only was the judge male, but the lawyers for the parties (including the children) were also all male, as was of course her husband. They were all in dark suits, and all knew each other; they proceeded as though at a social gathering at a gentleman’s club, and she was totally ignored. The men sorted it out to their own satisfaction. The justice and protection that the law was supposed to provide for a young woman struggling to bring up young children alone was simply not delivered.
We have a long way to go before we can claim that the world’s largest disadvantaged group (I was going to say “minority”, but there are more women in the world than men) are not similarly disadvantaged in New Zealand. The pay gap, attitudes to rape, the popularity of pornography, the prevalence of domestic violence, the unconscious assumption of male superiority, all go to show how much we yet have to do and how deeply entrenched are sexist attitudes. It’s surely time that all you men who profess to love and respect your mothers, wives, daughters and sisters stepped up to the plate and insisted on change.
12 March 2017