The Rise of Women

Women transcend classic pious statements about their place in society

The International Women’s Day is observed on 8th of March. As in past years, we heard the same platitudes, the same rhetorical statements about their under-representation at various levels in society, as if someone other than the ones uttering such views was responsible for the lopsided state of affairs in the country in this regard.

Remarks were made to the effect that there were barely any women in the commanding structures of certain of our major political parties or in businesses and that the number of women in the National Assembly wasn’t at all representative of the feminine gender’s weight in the population. Little, if anything, was said about concrete ways the issue should be addressed to achieve a meaningful turnaround and better parity between the sexes.

In any event, all this declaration of good intent was drowned by much “higher considerations” such as the role played by certain women in political, sex and corruption scandals, as if the concerned men had nothing to reproach themselves in the matter. It was a classic case of casting the woman in the bad role. For some, it was sufficient that some woman was singled out for her “stupendous” rise to power. That, it seemed, was sufficient for the media to floor their political adversaries, past and future. Not many seemed to be concerned with the bigger collective objectives to be pursued by the country. The perpetual recrimination against foes who had been swept away by the political tide of last year continued to be the dominant theme of our public discourse.

This has been the regard our leaders have been giving to one of the most important societal changes taking place in the world today, notably the struggle of women to assert themselves against all odds. Indeed, women are adapting successfully to seismic shifts in the economy and culture and surpassing their male counterparts both at work and at home. In most advanced societies, women are today ahead of men not only educationally but also socially and professionally.

Discrimination

I recall how when I joined the Bank of Mauritius in 1967, female staff of the Bank had to sign up to an additional clause in their contract of employment as compared with the men. They had to agree that “on marriage, female staff shall resign from their job”. I didn’t quite understand the reason behind this discrimination. I assumed that this surely had something to do with their matrimonial status, such as child-bearing and that this was an accepted current practice across the board. Sometime later, this clause was challenged. The Bank decided that it was better to drop it, sadly however not before some of our female colleagues had already resigned on account of this contractual provision until that time.

It was as if a glass ceiling was placed in advance at the very start of the career of these women. By the same token, while this clause brutally wrecked young women’s self-confidence, men were placed, inadvertently perhaps, on a higher pedestal. This grossly unfair practice may have been imported from the rules which then prevailed in the Bank of England, which was then setting up the central bank of the country still under colonial rule! Beware those therefore who tax the Orient exclusively for flagrant discrimination against women!

It is amazing how things have changed within a relatively short span. We were living barely four to five decades ago with the legacy of a past age which considered it “normal” – even in Western societies — to place women at the lower scales of the social ladder despite some of them having proved their superior mettle in different domains. Women such as Joan of Arc turned defeat into victory during the heat of battle in the Middle Ages; Florence Nightingale became a celebrated social reformer and statistician and an exemplar of modern nursing during the Crimean War; and the Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi dared the British army in battle when the latter betrayed the trust her husband the Raja had placed on them.

Briefly, despite restrictions placed on them by society, women have been achievers of great distinction all through recorded history. That doesn’t mean that they have not historically been discriminated against in the so-called advanced societies. It is not out of the blue that, between 1900 and 1950, half of jobs were barred to women in a place such as America! There had prevailed a concept that women were better consigned to the household in a male dominated society.

Breaking glass ceilings

In most parts of the world, this is no longer the case. The situation is changing very fast at the global level. According to an index, called the Glass-ceiling Index, produced by The Economist, which captures data on women from 28 countries, based on women’s higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights, business-school applications and senior jobs held, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Poland and France occupy the five highest places whereas Turkey, Japan and South Korea are numbers 26, 27 and 28, respectively.

The achievement gap between males and females in the modern world has tilted sharply in favour of women in the space of the past few decades since the mid-1980s. A report issued by the OECD on 5th March 2015, brings out how this reversal of situation has been taking place. The reversal begins at teenage. The report refers to a study of 15-year olds from 64 countries. The main findings: boys have, on average, just a slight edge over girls in maths of about three months’ schooling equivalent; in science, the two sides are more or less at the same level; but, when it comes to reading, girls outperform boys by an average gap equivalent to one year’s extra schooling.

This is in sharp contrast to the situation some decades earlier when boys were ahead in all three fields of maths, science and reading. Boys have moved away from doing homework and reading enough, as they spend more time on video games and trawling the internet. Boys long to be away from the classroom in an extraordinary lack of self-discipline compared with girls three-quarters of whom read for pleasure and devote far more time to doing homework.

The study shows that girls’ educational dominance persists after school. While higher education has boomed worldwide, women’s enrolment has increased almost twice as fast as men’s. The ratio of female to male tertiary enrolment is fastest in Central Europe, North America, the European Union, Latin America and East Asia and Pacific, in this order, much above the world average as from the mid-1980s. The Arab countries, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa come lower down in this respect, below world average. America, Britain and Scandinavia have 50% more women than men on campus. Women get typically better grades but the majority of them choose education, health, arts and the humanities; in contrast, the majority of men take up computing, engineering and the exact sciences.

Women as a group are better qualified but they end up earning about three-quarters as much as men. This is because the subjects most women choose – education, the humanities and social work – command a lesser pay than engineering or computer science which men go for. There are besides other factors at play which keep women less well paid: America’s elite private colleges, for example, have opaque admission policies which favour the men. Unlike women, who choose unambitious career paths or drop out from careers to spend more time with their children, men stay on to the point their previous qualifications gained matter less in consolidating the career path than other factors like personality, ambition and experience. Men putting in long days to work and accepting to be constantly on call gain the edge in terms of pay in the given work structure.

Raise all the boats together

During past decades, as women have moved up in the education-conscious societies of the world, it is the unskilled men dropping out from schools and colleges who are being left behind. In examination after examination, girls have been cutting an edge over boys and women over men even in a society like Mauritius where the educational system has a lot of catching-up to do vis-à-vis the true performers on the global stage.

It is often claimed in our country that working women in the family should merely complement the earnings of the men in the families. This mirrors an old prejudice whereby women in the family should choose men endowed with higher earnings for wedlock. Why? Who is afraid that the woman, by virtue of her higher earnings, should steer the family boat? The on-going economic emancipation of women may spell the death of this prejudice.

We should stop living in a past which condemned women to subservience. Whether we want it or not, women have been gaining in status the world over and there is no way Mauritius could deny them the right to contribute equally to the advancement of the economy and to higher social values than the lowly social profiles they are publicly cast into whenever it suits the convenience of the men.

 

* Published in print edition on 19 March  2015

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