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The Gender Equality Debate in the Future

From Fremtidsorientering 2/2003

How should we understand and relate to gender equality in the future? What does it mean to be equal; i.e., what has to be equalised? And who are going to define it? What surveys and numbers are we going to need in order to better understand and improve equality among men, between men and women, and not least between family and working life? We need a new definition of gender equality that goes beyond the industrial society and into the new society. And most of all, we need an entirely new debate.

By Gitte Larsen

In spite of the relatively new mainstreaming politics we still lack both a deeper understanding of and a far better and more proactive 'measurement' of what gender equality is and what it should be in the future. We e.g. lack qualitative surveys of the significance and meaning of it all, especially regarding perspectives for the gender equality of the future.

Does gender equality exist? Nobody can doubt that is - as hitherto defined - doesn't yet exist in practice. Men and women neither have equal opportunities for participating in the working life nor the family life. Nor does equal pay exist - and maybe it never will? Maybe the industrial society's economical focus on and measure of gender equality simply isn't useful anymore?

It is of course necessary to have the sort of statistics that exist about men and women and gender equality today - and it is still necessary to fight for not least equal pay for equal work. But it isn't the existing numbers and the current debate that will be the winning agenda in the field of gender equality in the future.

How are we going to 'measure' gender equality in the future? And what do the numbers for the gender equality of the future look like? What is it we imagine gender equality should focus on and consist of? What is the purpose of talking about and striving for gender equality? What should be equalised? And who? And of course: when should this happen?

The winning agenda

The gender equality debate of the future should take its basis in what I call the winning agenda. Instead of equal opportunities for men and women on the labour market, in society and in the family, we could with advantage take our basis in 'the good life' for the individual.

The good life first and foremost implies that the so-called 'golden triangle' is balanced for each of us. I.e., that there is a connection between working life, family life and me-life and the time spent in the three areas. We most clearly see the trend in relation to working life in these years: work has lost significance, and we prioritise it lower than ever before, whereas family, friends and leisure time are prioritised as highly as ever (in our own opinions).

In the golden triangle, it is the relations between the spheres and hence between our most important 'life areas' that count. It isn't just the individual area as such, but rather the relations between them, which are important to each of us. The winning agenda in the gender equality debate of the future isn't equality of the sexes, but rather equality of the spheres and their interrelations.

In short, it is a matter of moving from dealing with 'statistical communities' to focusing on the 'natural communities'. A statistical community is a community where you have nothing in common except what is being measured - e.g. that you are a woman, man or manager, that you are on maternity leave or are being paid so and so much. Natural communities are communities where you interact no matter if you are measured and counted or not. Examples of natural communities are a family, a workplace, and a city.

The fundamental and the winning agendas taken together form an expression of the agenda of the future. The specific content of the two agendas, and their interaction, which is very central, are evolving all the time. Thus the fundamental and the winning agendas are dynamic agendas that regularly have to be adapted to the general societal developments.

On the winning agenda we find the things and themes that make sense to the individual in everyday life - today and in the future.

Equality among men

One of the problems with the gender equality debate today is that it tends to be about equality being for women. But two parties are required before we can have equality. In a number of areas the equality of men is far behind that of women. After all, the number of female top-level managers is increasing, which is more than we can say about men on maternity leave.

A few weeks back, a headline read: "Women in executive offices give a bonus to the bottom line." The subheading continued: "There's money in gender equality. Companies with female top-level managers simply are better at making money than where the executive halls are reserved for men."

When are we going to see the headline "Men at home give a bonus to the family"? And not just to the family, but to the bottom line of the companies as well. Because this actually is what recent research shows: that when men take part in childcare and domestic tasks, and especially when they carry the main responsibility for a time, then the understanding between men and women is improved, gender equality is strengthened, and not least: men become more satisfied with their lives because they get closer relationships with their kids and better relationships with their women!

Gender equality is first and foremost a matter of equality between family and working life and hence of equalising the qualities and values provided by the family with those provided by work. Imagine if there was just as much prestige in managing a family for a time as there is in managing a department or company! Or imagine if family life actually provided recognised qualifications on the labour market!

Gender equality may also be far more about equality among men that is generally discussed. We often hear that men who choose to go on maternity leave for more than the two weeks immediately following childbirth (or even just those two weeks) are met with opposition from managers and from male colleagues. They fear losing prestige and opportunities for advancement on the workplace - as probably still happens in many places. This takes place while more and more men desire to be fathers in the new way and desire a better relationship between family life and working life and generally to live a life where there is time for both and for using both sides of themselves.

Division of domestic tasks

Statements like: "The stress level of men drops when they come home from work, and 95% think the division of tasks is harmonious and promotes the love life. The stress level of women increases when they come home from work, and one-third are dissatisfied with the division of tasks while the rest think things could be better", and "A fortunate man finds a woman that handles all the domestic work. A fortunate woman finds a man that handles half of it" still aren't far from the reality men and women experience today.

The newest numbers show that both men and women spend more time on domestic tasks than before while also spending more time at work. What we spend less time on are eating and sleeping! But women still spend more time on childcare, cleaning, laundry, etc.

The question is if it is the women's job to get their men to do more. Should women make greater demands of their men about taking their share of the maternity leave, the childcare and the housework? Or should the men do it of their own accord? There are many possibilities, since it depends on how you perceive and understand equality - about how to 'do gender'.

A new definition of gender equality

The gender equality debate of the future should take its basis in that the society of the present and not least the future is organised differently than the industrial society. We make other demands of our existence today, we focus on other values, and our working lives look far different from what they used to do.

Both the fundamental and the winning agendas are parts of the gender equality debate of the future. The interplay between the two agendas is quite central because the debate about gender equality and equality in practice both have an instrumental side and an expressive side. The 'old' definition of gender equality has the inherent problem that the focus is on the economic side; e.g. that his work, measured in Euros and cents, is worth more for the family than her is. In other words, the softer and more human values are devaluated in favour of the instrumental ones.

"This devaluation can be understandable in an industrial society, but is it suitable in a more information-oriented economy? Is it the trend for the future?" asks Øystein Gullvåg Holter in his book "Can Men Do It?", which just has been published.

A new definition of gender equality can with advantage take its basis in the winning and softer values - in 'the good life' for company and family, for women and men.


Three scenarios for family and gender equality

These three scenarios may not be equally desirable, but they are all possible and likely. Perhaps none of the future images will be right on the dot, but that isn't important. The important thing is to relate to the great space of possibilities that the families are facing and then create your own desirable future.

The scenarios for the family are taken from the article "The Ticking Bomb" by Liselotte Lyngsø, Director of Research at CIFS, from the book "Den ny f@milie" ("The New F@mily") by Gitte Jørgensen, et al, Det Schønbergske Forlag 2002.

Scenario I: The fragmented family

Mom and dad both have full-time jobs, which they love. The employers have made sure that it is really exciting to go to work, since this is the only way to recruit labour. Mom and dad have access to all the flexibility they need with regard to service, working hours and teleworking. They can hardly feel that they have kids! There's help to be had for everything and lots of opportunities for success on the labour market. Once in a while mom and dad also need to work evenings and weekends. Their son is in kindergarten and their daughter in school and later in youth club. All shops are open until 8 p.m. The kids occasionally eat dinner at the institutions if mom and dad work late, or perhaps mom and dad buy today's meal to bring home from the kindergarten. If the parents have to work later than 8 p.m., the staff can be paid to stay longer and they can even drive the kids home and put them to bed.

This image of the future is characterised by extreme individualism, which in many ways is an extrapolation of the lifestyle of the 'Free Ones I' of the present. All have their own patterns of work, consumption and leisure time, and no-one goes on compromise regarding their self-realisation.

When the family comes together, it is for special, tailor-made and entertaining occasions that fit all the family members. The philosophy is that it is groovy to have it all. The exciting work, the exciting kids, the exciting hobby, and the exciting friends. As long as you feel good about your choices, the children will be fine - for satisfied parents are the best parents!

A large proportion of firms will probably applaud this scenario. In the future they will face a labour force where each individual has been used to self-actualisation from the age of 20 to the age of 30. If the firms support and help these new flexibility-demanding employees through making it easier for them to have children, they will get far more out of them - i.e., increased productivity and engagement.

The fragmented image also represents an attitude that is almost unknown today, when nine out of ten women have children, about not wanting to have children because other experiences require all your attention and time. It is a new trend that strong, well-educated and beautiful women in the Western world reject having children where it used to be the rejected and 'odd' women that didn't get children.

Scenario II: The re-united family

Dad and mod share tasks and work. They both are on the labour market, and they both are at home cooking, doing laundry, and wiping runny noses. Mom goes on maternity leave during the children's first six months, and dad takes his obligatory two weeks right after birth - but after that, mom and dad take turns working part time and full time. In some periods dad works 20 hours a week, in other periods he works 40 hours. Mom does the opposite, so there is always a parent at home in the afternoon to be with the kids. The family's two kids are in institutions, but no more than six hours a day. Mom and dad take turns dropping off and picking up the kids.

How does this work? The husband is brought into play, not as a substitute mom, but as a DAD, and with him comes the money and prestige in focusing on family values. The re-united family becomes a reality because new family-oriented father types and male images begin to characterise the time.

The next generation of men will not put up with being number two or with almost per definition losing all rights to the children in divorce suits. Besides, in the labour market it has been discovered that the best employee is a whole person in charge of both his family life and his working life, since if things go wrong in one sphere, it will reflect on the other. And this change in attitude is doing its part to help the husband being a dad with capital D.

In the re-united family, mom and dad speak with one voice, something that the employer respects. It is thus unheard-of to interview just one of them at e.g. a job interview. A job interview will typically be with the entire family: mom, dad and children so that everyone has an opportunity to negotiate. Because families with children live such standardised lives, they have been able to make allies both within the family and with other families, and hence they stand as the strongest group on the labour market in the future.

Scenario III: The divided picture

Dad works full throttle while mom goes on maternity leave and afterwards doesn't work, or works part time, for years. But mom doesn't just putter around at home getting dumber and dumber. She follows professional courses over the internet and partakes in various social and electronic networks. In this way she reduces the social, economic and psychological costs associated with staying at home for several years. The children aren't placed in a crèche and don't start kindergarten until three years old. In theory, mom is hired along with her husband in his firm. She is mentioned by name on his contract, and a part of his paycheck and pension benefits is paid directly to her personal account.

In the divided scenario women will be women and men will be men. And none of them sees anything wrong in this. They acknowledge that biology controls them more than all of us pretended it did.

This could become a reality since many surveys in several countries show that the gender division still exists, even though there's talk about the opposite, and because the governments don't make rules that ensure that the man takes his part of the maternity leave.

Besides it has become a career in its own right to be a mother, and women do more to become conscious and well-informed mothers. And they like being it. One can wonder what happened to feminism and the gender debate. But the young don't see the gender division as a problem. They rather see it as a fact that there are biological and mental differences between men and women. So if the men should take a greater part, the women would have to be willing to let go. The 'divided' scenario just doesn't think it will ever come to this.

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25. maj 2003

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Gitte Larsen

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Labour Market

People, Gender Roles, and Family

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