Where are (Wo)(Men) and what does it mean?

Conversations on how men and women should think, act, or simply be, are often explosive. Unlike football or religion, everyone has a direct stake here. The topic creates tension that gets channeled into anecdotes, awkward silences, feelings of rejection and even open anger and violence. Yet all of us could benefit from a more relaxed talk on what drives and limits our personal or career choices, and how this shapes the society we all live in. V4Revue is launching a new series tackling exactly these questions.

Photo: © Malcom Evans


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We’re socialized into acting like “good girls” and “real men.” Central Europe belongs to those parts of the world where girls are still considered “good” even when they get an education and exercise voting rights, and men are still “real” even if they do not provide all of the family income. However, you are more likely to meet a female nurse or teacher than a dean, a minister or a CEO. 1

No matter where you stand on the debate about the division of housework, childrearing and breadwinning, a few things are clear: men and women each constitute about half of society, and both sexes are necessary for the emergence of human life. It would only be expected that men and women would have been able to find a way to jointly govern the society they share. But they haven’t.

Those questioning the discrepancies in male and female representation in different walks of life are often attacked for imposing their worldview, or attempting to ruin traditional gender patterns. However, it is simply difficult to defend a notion that half of our society should be happy with fewer means of influencing the policies that directly concern it – from education to the justice system, and from transportation to diplomacy. While women are present in public life, they are absent from positions where decisions are made, and conversely overrepresented in unpaid and/or caring positions. 2

But are we talking here about tradition – following “natural” order, or a lack of imagination? Does a woman become a nurse rather than a nuclear physicist because it is more socially acceptable? Or because nursing is where her “natural characteristics” can be put to better use?  Does a man skip becoming a primary school teacher because these so-called “care professions” are predestined for women? Or because the salary offered will not provide for his family in a society where he is expected to be the breadwinner? Is it really true that men do not want to share family responsibilities? Would it be a disaster if there were, for example, more male teachers in elementary schools, or contrarily a refreshing change, and an upgrade for everyone?

Trying to balance work and family life reveals how inflexible certain jobs still are. Three years ago Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a widely discussed article reflecting on her experience switching careers from a professor at Princeton to a top official at the US Department of State. 3 Slaughter recalls how going from a flexible job, to one that required many more hours in the office restricted her ability to do all she’d done before.

She eventually quit, realizing she’d rather have a position that enabled her, “getting up and making waffles, or going to a baseball game . . .  all these silly little things.” 4 Slaughter’s ability to combine both work and family however did not only rely on flexibility of the work place but also on the support of her husband, also a well-known academic, Andrew Moravcsik. In fact, her husband provided more than support. In a recent article, Why I put my wife’s career first, Moravcsik tells his story of  being the “lead parent” in a two-career marriage, although the original plan was to have 50:50 shares of the responsibilities. 5 That choice came as exotic to many, yet he does not talk about any regrets, on the contrary.

Equality of all human beings is enshrined in UN Declaration of Human Rights, which has been ratified by all UN members. Yet, in reality, not only are women almost absent from decision-making positions, they also represent a larger portion of the victims of violent conflict. 6 And while UN members have already committed themselves to protecting the rights of women in numerous declarations over the past few decades, 7 things seem to move much faster when women are sitting behind the table.

The first US female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, reflected on her days as the US’s Ambassador to the UN after the Bosnian War, when a war crimes tribunal was being established. She was shocked to discover that there were only 6 other women out of the 183 UN ambassadors: “We called ourselves the G7 – the girl seven – and we lobbied on behalf of women’s issues. We managed to get two women judges on this war crimes tribunal. And then (. . .) they were able to declare that rape was a weapon of war.” 8

Gender projects have often been conceived to “empower” women and champion their voices, because female perspectives are still simply lacking across so many walks of life. However, many equality proposals have been met with backlash and the absence of men’s support, and this can hardly move the conversation forward. Some men, who are socialized into “being strong” now feel that something important is being taken from them and there is nothing to replace it. At the same time, many women argue that modern men have understood feminist calls for equality as a ticket for their irresponsibility – as if the women were not asking for shared responsibilities and equal opportunities for decision-making, but to do everything on their own.

Libraries abound with brilliant scholarship about how our social roles were established and how material and power imbalances became obstacles to a more equal representation in public affairs. For years it was impossible for women to assume public roles – that is, if they still wanted to be considered women, because public speaking was considered unfeminine. 9 And although some progress has been made, there is still considerable room for improvement.

But can and should equality be achieved mainly by women becoming more assertive about their rights in the public conversation as some suggest? 10 Or should we follow the #HeForShe 11 path, asking male defenders of gender equality to speak up? Should this even be a conversation about women rights, or a conversation about what kind of society we all want to live in?

In the coming months we hope to contribute more candor to this very sensitive and important debate by examining both men and women’s representation in various sectors, how the discrepancies came about and what this means for our societies.

Notes:

  1. Also, a number of conferences on public affairs in the region generate post candidates for Congrats, you have an all-male panel tumblr feed.
  2. Anne Laure Humbert, Viginta Ivaskaite-Tamosiune, Nicole Oetke and Merle Paks (2015) Gender Equality Index 2015. Vilnius: European Institute for Gender Equality.
  3. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, The Atlantic, July/August 2012.
  4. Hanna Rosin (2012) Interview with Ann Marie Slaughter.
  5. Andrew Moravcsik (2015) Why I Put My Wife’s Carrier First.
  6. Radhika Coomaraswamy  et al. (2015) A Global Study on the Implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. New York: UN Women.
  7. CEDAW, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and the UN Security Council Resolution 1325/2000 being the most prominent ones; for more see here. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jun/13/warzone-rape-congo-questions-uk-campaign.
  8. Madeleine Albright (2010) On Being a Woman and a Diplomat. Ted Talk.
  9. Mary Beard (2013) The Public Voice of Women, London Review of Books.
  10. Soraya Chemaly, Ten Words Every Girl Should Know.
  11. HeForShe
V4 Revue

V4 Revue

is a webzine bringing analysis and commentary on Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovak politics and society.