Women in the developed world have never had it so good. Do you agree?

“Not until the woman takes her rightful place as an equal beside man, not just by the fireside but in council of the nation, will the world see the perfect union between man and woman and true gender equality achieved.” This statement by leading feminist of her name, Susan B. Anthony, may have seemed but an unattainable ideal in the past, mocked by men as sheer daydreaming. Yet, today, as a product of the feminist movements Anthony and other like-minded feminists led in the past, we are seeing a paradigm shift in society, from an authoritarian, patriarchal society, to a more egalitarian, democratic one. Some hail this age as one in which women are accorded equal rights and privileges as their male counterparts, commenting rather loosely that “women have never had it so good”. On the other hand, those in relentless pursuit of female empowerment, while acknowledging that blatantly sexist laws and practices have been abolished, opine that gender inequality still persists as a subtle undercurrent in our society today. Indeed, while amendments to constitutions worldwide have made it seem that women today are better positioned than their peers in the past to live life as man’s equal in the economic, political and social spheres, this essay argues that the principles of gender inequality and female discrimination are so deeply entrenched in the workings of even modern society, that the claim that women in the developed world have it better today than any other point in history, is a highly debatable one.

Shifts in cultural precepts allowing the emancipation of the woman from the domestic sphere make it seem as if women in the developed world today are better off than they were in the past, Undeniably, the pains taken by feminists to promulgate the concept of female empowerment through history is bearing fruit today, as women enjoy an expansion in their roles in society. Once under oppression by a repressive patriarchal society, women today have fought against subjugation in the domestic sphere and triumphed, rendering the proverb “a women’s place is in the home” seemingly obsolete. Yet, closer analysis of the division of labour in the household between men and women reveal another side of this fairy-tale ending. Maternal instincts, the natural biological inclination of women to be the nurturers of the home, still largely predominate the mind-sets of modern- day women, and guide the way households in developed societies are run. It remains unquestionable for men to assume the role of breadwinner, responsible for bringing home the bacon. Women of the developed today can do so too, but on condition that they are able to juggle the demands of household chores and nurturing of the children at the same time, revealing a deep-set bias against the role of the woman in the home, as one primarily responsible for managing chores such as cooking of the aforementioned bacon for her husband and children. Studies have shown that in dual-income families, women are still subject to a large majority of the household chores, doing an approximated twenty hours of household chores as compared to the measly ten that men are wont to do. Sociologists have also pointed out that the nature of men’s chores, such as washing the car or tending to the yard, is sporadic, with an element of leisure. In contrast, women remain responsible for the backbreaking work such as cooking and cleaning, which these sociologists have labelled as “repetitive, routine and mundane”. Given such a juxtaposition of the division of labour between men and women in the households of the developed world today, those who prefer to see it as the “accumulation of labour” can be forgiven. The fact that women’s role in the household has evolved negligibly from the past, albeit with the added benefit of being allowed to work, make the claim that women have never had it so good a dubious and perhaps myopic one, in light of the fact that women of today may be suffering more than ever given the added burned of being employed.

Some claim that the breaking of the revered glass ceiling by women such as Doris Fisher, CEO of GAP Inc., signals the rise of the woman in the labour force, as never seen before in the past. Amendments to the US constitution that state that “on no account will anyone be discriminated against in the course of employment on the basis of gender” compound the widely held opinion that women of today are enjoying an impartiality in term of employment, that essentially makes them equal in the eyes of the employer. By extension, this indicates that the door of the labour force that was once tightly shut to women has been opened, and that women of today now have access to opportunities to success in life like no other. Sadly, these changes to the law and constitution may be but amendments made in black and white, and are in actuality ineffectual in taking gender equality in the workplace from the legal statues of society to the real lives of women in the labour force today. Women today still face subtle discrimination in the workplace, from hiring practices to ease of promotion. The term “women’s work” is still being used to refer to occupations such as nurses or secretaries, implying a devaluation of occupations typically associated with women. Such devaluation is condemnable, as it depresses women’s wages and circumscribes their opportunities and scope. Women today still face implicit societal pressure to take on roles deemed suitably feminine, in order to be able to succeed in society. Employers in traditionally “masculine” sectors such as engineering and science, still adopt discriminating hiring practices to prevent women from invading these sectors. An example of the inequality still manifest in the workplace of developed society may be this striking statistic: Ninety percent of the word’s billionaires are men, and only a few are women of self-made (versus inherited) fortune, Doris Fisher being one of them. Yes, women have been granted access to the management and contribution to the economy, but in between homemaking and deal making, juggling the stresses of the workplace, it is no wonder that women today remain resigned to their inability to penetrate top-earning sectors of the economy, throwing doubt upon the claim that women today have never had it so good.

Another way in which the women of today seem to have it much better than their counterparts in history can also be found in term sof the education that women now have full access to. Once treated as chattel or as mere goods to be traded by marriage, women today now find themselves being bestowed the opportunity to be educated, the same way men have been for ages past No longer in the position of yearning girls at the window watching their brothers leave for school, women today have received the right to education and are using it to their advantage. A survey by the University Colleges and Admissions Services (UCAS) in the United Kingdom showed that females did almost thirty percent better than their male counterparts in science and math, subjects traditionally perceived as “male strengths”. However, one should not be so quick as to pass this off as an absolute improvement in the position of women in the education sector today. It was recently revealed that Ivy League universities in the United States have been practising affirmative action for American males, in order to maintain certain gender ratios in faculties such as medicine and engineering. Even in Singapore, a country considered developed by a majority of indices, our esteemed National University of Singapore practices an unwritten rule of selecting more males than females in the medical faculty to create a gender ratio in favour of males. When questioned, the administration of the medicine faculty defends its approach, citing the reproduction status of women as liabilities in their future as doctors. Such blatant sexism undermines the advancements opportunities that they struggled for years in the education system to attain – entry into prestigious courses once considered exclusively for men.

Judging from superficial trends observed in the domestic, economic and education spheres of the developed world today, it would seem as if modern women are at the peak of the fight for gender equality. However, the waters of female discrimination run deep and are much harder to eliminate that is widely perceived. Social and cultural stigmatisation of women remains arguably rampant in communities, thus making the case for modern-day females. Indeed, their job is not done. That improvements have been made can constitute encourage to these people, for the labour of their ancestors for the empowerment of women has not been for nought. Beyond the question of whether women today have never had it so good, we must go on to question if women can have it even better. Just as there have been triumphs in the fight against racism, apartheid and other Goliaths of discrimination, the end of gender inequality is one definitely not out of reach, and is one that we should all continually strive towards, in hope of achieving that “perfect union of man and woman” that Susan B. Anthony speaks of with such hope.