I am always entertained by the way that including Mr Litlove in my posts, in any capacity, turns out to be really quite appealing to you, my blogging friends. I thought about this and wondered whether it wasn’t because we balance each other out. Where I am artistic, he is scientific, where I am anxious, he is marvelously carefree, where I am pragmatic, he tends towards idealism. We are very differently hardwired, and over the years have learned to turn that to our advantage; now we benefit from that difference of perspective. His presence here in the virtual world is always a breath of fresh air into my little enclosed library, and both of us can see the virtue in that.
Balance, harmony, a perfect equilibrium of yin and yang; I think we all know and have experienced its serenity and pleasure, and to my mind, this is the secret formula behind the elusive quality that we talk so much about but never seem to really find: equality. A couple of weeks ago in the UK there was an interesting two-part documentary on the current state of play concerning women in the work place. It backed up in all respects an extremely intriguing book I’d been reading entitled Mothers on the Fast Track, written by an American mother and daughter team, Mary Ann Mason and Eve Mason Ekman. Both book and programme said the same thing: young women enter the marketplace on level pegging with men, and earn similarly to them. But in their 30s and 40s something happens and the vast majority get turned off of the fast track, at the end of which lie the greatest career rewards in terms of money and status, and towards jobs that are mostly underpaid and lack career progression. By the end of their working lives, women can still expect to have been paid an estimated $300,000 less than their male counterparts. The professions continue to present the greatest challenge to ambitious women; in medicine, law, academia and business it continues to be a man’s world – there are barely any female surgeons, only 23% of tenure track faculty are women, and only 3% of CEOs. The figures should be taken seriously because role models are tremendously important to consolidate social change. It’s an old conundrum, but if we want women to be at the top of professions, we have to have women there already, to help and encourage and inspire those further down the ladder. But this simply isn’t happening.
The stumbling block remains the problem of childcare. It’s not that women can’t reach the top, it’s that the process of getting there is expensive and exhausting. The majority of men in demanding jobs have wives who stay home and bring up children. Hardly any of the women in the top rung have such a luxury. The longer hours a man works, the more likely he is to have children, and the more children he is likely to have. It’s still ideologically important for a man to be seen to provide for a family. For a woman, it is still ideologically important for her to be deeply involved in bringing up children, and so when women also work, they simply take on two shifts. Figures suggest that women with children end up working a solid and depressing 90-hour week, far more hours than any of the other categories (men with or without children, women without children), and that level of commitment is just hard to sustain. And look what the professions ask of their employees. Ever since women entered the workplace in significant figures, the time commitment involved in traditional, influential careers has steadily become ever greater. It’s now regularly expected of lawyers that they will work late into the night on important cases, will travel repeatedly and at short notice, as well as entertaining clients or preparing paperwork on weekends. The situation in academia is equally exhausting, with academics overburdened with demands for teaching, administration and research. But perhaps the worst of all is the medical profession, which regularly expects junior doctors to work shifts of more than thirty hours. After an important precedent was set in America when a hospital was sued for negligence due to the exhaustion of its staff, laws were passed that were intended to limit the time doctors were on duty. But a survey taken ten years later showed that over half the teaching hospitals inspected had violated those laws. You have to pause and think about this and wonder what’s at stake here. On the one hand there is a rather ugly commercial intent to bleed employees for all they are worth, to get as much work out of people as they are physically able to give in order to make them good value. But workers accept this because of a fierce culture in the workplace that celebrates being visible. Being there. It’s crazy, in a world of such sophisticated communications technology that people have to be seen as much as they do. And it’s crazy in a rich society that we have to work people so hard. There’s no reason for it, other than a privileging of visibility. Men complain that women take many more sick days, mostly linked to their hormonal cycle, but I wonder when someone is going to tally up the amount of hours men spend surfing the net after boozy lunches. It’s not so easy to do, is it, when the worker is sitting at his desk, but I would put money on those gender differences evening out.
So, my point here is that the reason women fail to rise to the top of their professions, particularly when they have children, is that the culture in the work place remains resolutely set against them. And resolutely masculine, in the old-fashioned ways. Work is still an aggressive, competitive arena, lacking in compassion or empathy for the private self, money-driven in a way that verges on being unethical (and often crosses the line) and obsessed with people being visibly available. In other words, it’s all yang, and not enough yin. As individuals we all have the capacity to be both yin and yang, both masculine and feminine, but these environments appeal to only one side of the brain and the heart. So men and women, regardless, get sucked into believing that work is necessarily the way it is, rather than seeking to implement proper, sustainable change. And we really have to ask ourselves whether we are truly happy with the situation we have created here. Look at the recent banking crisis. If that wasn’t a tragedy of relentless, mindless yang over the more cautious, gentle, pragmatic qualities of yin, I don’t know what it was. It was a testosterone-driven, risk-crazy, greed-compelled catastrophe for which bankers are still failing to take adequate responsibility. And when I read those figures for the average shift of a junior doctor I felt horrified. I don’t want that exhausted person performing delicate surgery on me; I wouldn’t even want them to take my temperature. Just as I wouldn’t want my case handled by lawyers who’d been up all night or to buy products from a company so obsessed with money making that they took unethical decisions. The global political arena is still straightforwardly dominated by men and determinedly, hubristically masculine, and what about technology? It’s probably the most significant industry in the world right now, and extremely masculine in its structures. I’m not saying that women can’t or don’t work in it – far from it, but that they work in left-brain environments, heavily reliant on logic, analysis and objectivity.
I think it’s time we evened things up a little. There’s a lot to be said for yang – it’s a fine combination of qualities – but it grows out of control without the balancing factor of yin. That’s what I would wish for the world; more compassion, more charity, a pleasure in intuition and play, the ability to look at the situation as a whole, not as compartmentalized fragments, an understanding of the value in weakness and gentleness, not simply a validation of power. I would like for us to cherish respect of other people’s individuality, to foster an ability to intervene and offer support that does not inevitably develop into a hostile takeover, to celebrate patience and charity, all the traditional qualities of yin, and qualities associated with the mothers who are still resolutely excluded from the work place. George Sand said way back in the nineteenth century that the perfectly equal state would mirror the perfectly equal marriage and she was really onto something. The only way we can make that change is by each of us letting difference in, by asking for reasonable working conditions and by refusing to be seduced into thinking things must be the way they are. Equality, balance, harmony – it’s not impossible, only very, very different.