Do similar gender roles always constitute “progress”?
A new paper looked at farming practices in arid regions — with surprising results
The pandemic has been unrelentingly tough on working women. In the US, women accounted for all the 140,000 US job losses in December, and 2.1 million American women have dropped out of the workforce altogether since February because squaring the circle of homeschooling and caring for kids at home while continuing to work was simply unfeasible.
It’s part of received popular opinion that societal changes such as the entry of women into the workforce constitute ‘progress’ in an absolute sense: that is, the fact that more women are in paid employment than 100 years ago is in and of itself evidence of things getting better. But what if this ‘progress’ is in fact just an effect of social and economic conditions? A new paper, which studies the correlation between historic farming practices in different geographies worldwide and attitudes to women working outside the home or earning property, suggests that there’s nothing absolute about societal trajectories toward sex equality at all.
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The paper compared data on historic irrigation practices in dry areas of the globe with social survey data examining women’s labour force participation and property ownership. It showed a clear inverse correlation between irrigation farming, and sex equality. That is, the more prevalent a region’s use of irrigation in farming, the less common it was for women to work outside the home or be permitted to own property.
The authors suggested that number of factors might drive this correlation. One such factor is conflict: irrigation draws on rivers and aquifers, which are a common resource, and the increased instance of warfare is likely to raise the social status of men. Another is increased productivity: irrigation meant more food and hence a higher birth rate, meaning that caring for children kept women closer to home and drove more polarised sex roles.
Much of the discourse around sex equality and work rests on the unspoken premise that there’s some absolute sense in which organising a society around men and women doing the same things, in the same spheres, is morally superior to doing so with divided sex roles. But in material conditions — such as an arid country where the use of irrigation means you can grow more food, where the likelihood of a people being able to survive is increased by a greater division in sex roles — is this still true? It’s difficult to make the case that a commitment to sex equality is more important than community survival.
Applying this insight to the modern developed world, we should at least consider the possibility that the twentieth-century feminist drive for women to enter the workplace was less about progress as such than an unusual set of material conditions that concealed differences between the sexes (such as disparities in brute strength or the ability to breastfeed) which have pronounced social impacts in other contexts. When those material conditions change, as seems to be happening in the pandemic, those of us who care about women’s interests should set aside preconceived notions of ‘progress’ and give careful thought to what advocating for women looks like in the emerging new normal.
But what if this ‘progress’ is in fact just an effect of social and economic conditions?
Honestly, I think most progress is. I think we can have nice things like universal suffrage because we’re not constantly on the edge of starvation. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have them, it just means that they’re blessings of modernity that we should be grateful for. And that we shouldn’t ascribe the lack of them in crueler times to some kind of malicious conspiracy.
I agree that this is an idea that does not seem to be widely accepted, though.
That’s an interesting thought. That it is actually the change in material conditions which creates inequality, and progress consists of society’s adaptation to restore balance.
Where I’m going with this is that looking back at life in the 19th century, even in my own family history, the mass of men and women had an equally (but differently) crap time. Man or woman, they didn’t have the vote, didn’t got to Uni, didn’t have white-collar jobs.
Perhaps only when the number of skilled jobs became significant did the inequality really open up, as the protective value of brute strength diminshed but the convention of the male breadwinner remained?
Or another way of looking at it might be, as the vertical inequality between elite and the common man/woman decreases, the horizontal inequality becomes more significant?
“I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.”
“• John Quincy Adams
Prosperity brings options. How well we use those options requires mutual respect and some common basis of morality.
we have the luxury of concerning ourselves with first-world problems. Unfortunately, we often lack the self-awareness to realize it.
I think that it often the case. At the same time, I would say it’s not entirely the case, and it’s best to try and be conscious of both possibilities.
I agree with the point made, but not impressed by the report referenced to kick it off.
As soon the source was identified as the “National Women’s Law Centre” with the disingenuous opening line ” All of the Jobs Lost in December Were Women’s Jobs” then the incentive to research further into the report for objective analysis was lost …
Using summary conclusions from publications coming from “single-identity” organisations rarely encourages engagement from those “outside” the specific interest group.
Exactly, the headline of that study is complete nonsense and an insult to the tens of thousands of men who lost their jobs in December. Just because women in aggregate lost jobs and men in aggregate gained jobs, does not equal “all the 140,000 US job losses in December” were by women. Whoever wrote that is a liar or an idiot, probably both.
Yeah I noticed that and smelled a rat. I’m also slightly confused at the 2.1 million women losing employment comment. According to the US Bureau of Labor, as of December 2020 there were 9.8 million fewer Americans in employment than February 2020. If only 2.1 million of them were women that means just shy 79% of the job loses during the pandemic have been men…
But what if this ‘progress’ is in fact just an effect of social and economic conditions?
Then all the activists would be found lacking value. These are people who frequently insist men and women are interchangeable, an argument that’s difficult to make with normal men and women who are not blind to reality. We are different.
We tend to have different interests, different strengths and preferences, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with a man or woman who deviates from stereotype. It might be nice to eventually consider people as individuals rather than widgets within their particular group.
There often seems to be a slightly “embittered” characteristic to those who would prefer to measure equality of outcome – as opposed to equality of opportunity.
Theresa May struck me as an example ….
Yes, Jordan Peterson has repeatedly cited studies from Sweden which show that, when given equal opportunities in terms of education and careers etc, women generally – even overwhelmingly – opt to work in people-centred roles such as nursing.
When I was at school all the girls were much better than me at math and science so this is no way an attempt to say that men are superior in these areas.
I agree with you Mary, good piece, thank you.
“Much of the discourse around sex equality and work rests on the unspoken premise that there’s some absolute sense in which organising a society around men and women doing the same things, in the same spheres, is morally superior to doing so with divided sex roles. “
Unfortunately, what this pandemic has highlighted is that men and women are not “doing the same things, in the same spheres”. The job losses have predominantly fallen on women who are disproportionately in the lower paid and more vulnerable spheres such as retail, hospitality and service sectors that have been badly hit by the economic fallout of Government pandemic responses across the world. This is already impacting greatly on many women’s lives. To highlight just one example, Japan saw a rise in suicides of 83% among women in October 2020. What seems even more tragic is that the total suicides in that one month, 2,153, was higher than the total deaths Japan had experienced at the time from Coronavirus.
During 2020, people have often talked about a wake-up call and pressing a reset button for how we live our lives and run the economy in the future. Indeed, the final sentence of the article reflects on how we should “give careful thought to what advocating for women looks like in the emerging new normal”. The danger here is that we are just dreaming because the true reality hasn’t yet hit us. History suggests the emerging new normal will be much like the old normal: those with power and wealth (mostly white men) retaining their control, leaving the massive debts incurred by Western economies impacting disproportionately on the rest and some more so than others.
Women and men do not ‘want to make different choices’. Individuals want to make different choices. A truly progressive society is one in which there are no ‘gender roles’, but in which every adult is able to live as they choose within the limits of being required to earn their own living and support any children that they might have. Such a society would enable women to live freely from men, either alone or with other women, and would have none of the ‘transgender’ nonsense because there would be none of the ‘gender’ nonsense.
The only difference between male and female mammals is their different physical roles in the process of reproduction. Reproduction, thanks to contraception and abortion, is also a choice. Anything else that individuals choose to do is about ability, interest and personality. But every adult has a duty to support themselves and contribute to society.
Such a society would enable women to live freely from men,
such a society would also allow men to live freely from women but I cannot quite understand why this would be desirable.
I agree with the point about individuals, but the left loves to shove us into groups despite our best efforts to pursue our own self-interest whether it lines up with gender expectations or not.
You have three major assumptions here, and none of them are very strong. One is that the only difference, at a population level, between men and women is the most direct interpretation of reproductive role. That may be true, but we really don’t know that it is. It’s not the kind of thing it’s really possible to create an experiment around, all the evidence we can see suggests that it’s not the case. So you are talking about an unprovable ideological position.
The second, related, is around the disappearance of gender – that men and women, all things being equal, would make the same choices overall. Because if they wouldn’t, the idea that you could somehow overcome ideas around “gender” seems very questionable. As long as there are population level differences between the lives of men and women, people will notice and respond to them. It’s not even easy to imagine people’s ideas about the direct reproductive roles would not be transformed into cultural understanding and expression of maleness and femaleness – motherhood and fatherhood are too important in people’s lives.
The third is this business that ever adult is required to earn their own living. This is simply bollocks, unless you want to look to some sort of back-to-the land types living alone in Alaska. few of them are really independent either, mind. Society functions as a whole because people do different kinds of work that need to happen to make it work. The nanny is not contributing more because she gets paid, than if she was caring for her own child. The work of the advertising executive,, though higher paid, doesn’t add more than the work of unpaid parents – rather less, in fact. All employees depend on their employer for their pay packet, with very limited claims, whereas in a marriage partnership the relation is more equal as both have rights to the whole.
Society is a web of interdependencies, none of us are self-sufficient.
The society you describe is impossible. Of course there are gender roles, just as their are age and ability roles. That is logical.
And there are major differences between male and females because of the natural process of reproduction. Hormones dictate many things in a human body and that is why males and females are different biologically, physiologically, mentally and psychologically, if not often, emotionally.
A child cannot and should not take on adult roles and there are some things a man cannot do like become pregnant, give birth or breastfeed and the average man will always have greater muscle strength and be able to perform physically challenging roles which the average woman cannot.
No-one gets to live as they choose. There are physical, mental, environmental, cultural, biological, financial factors which play a part in what we can or cannot do. In a job where height is required then putting midgets on poles will not work.
Let us rejoin the sane world. A truly progressive society is one which recognises these realities and works to support people in striving for those roles and life circumstances which are possibly within their reach.
When the policy of integrating women with men in the Armed Forces started, and then was followed ‘as the night the day’ by combat roles for women, I remember being called a bad person at dinner parties, etc., for opposing this ‘progressive reform’.
My argument was (and remains) essentially that there are psychological and physiological differences between men and women and that women who are attracted to that type of role are more likely to be disturbed or even have psychopathic tendencies. Their presence in turn would attract men with such tendencies, resulting in Manson family-type behaviour. I feel that I am supported in that argument by Abu Ghraib, where there was a clear Manson-style codependency relationship between a woman and a man and the fact that one of the most extreme of Q-Anon followers at the Capitol last week (who unfortunately lost her life) was a female USAF veteran.
When we pretend that valuable and important differences between men and women don’t exist we are in danger of losing some of our humanity.
Well said although in this age, rarely said.
Did the study normalize for factors like the most prevalent religion in the region? Off the hop it sounds like it could be a case of spurious correlation.
That’s not an argument against wokeness (though there are many excellent arguments against wokeness and I am prone to making them). It’s an argument against excessive liberty.
Given complete freedom, women enfeeble themselves by making choices that make them dependent on the goodwill of men – and are then astonished when that doesn’t work out for them. Given complete freedom, men run themselves ragged snatching up as much power as possible – and then justify their ill-tempered entitlement with “I work so haaaaaaard!”
Forcing women to man up a little, and forcing men to chill out a little, is precisely what governments ought to do, since men and women constantly prove that they lack the good sense to do so on their own.
I think you might be taking Daniel’s last paragraph a bit too literally …. social engineering isn’t generally his thing.
Your post shows exactly what is wrong with the left. You can tell us all that we are too stupid to know how to live our own lives without your “help” and guidance and not even see the hubris.
God save us all from the “good people.”
I agree with your sentiment, but we don’t live in a world of complete freedom. Women have been forced to be the worthless, helpless dependents of males for thousands of years. Our ability to eat was contingent on groveling to the nearest Big Man. Men love that world, and always punish women who won’t lick their boots. (Note also that for most of history men killed women who lived past age Fuckable, too.)
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