Capitalism Series #2: Sex and gender

One of the most pressing and publicized ‘difference’-related injustices – we’ll get to that in a minute – is clearly that of sex and the ways in which male and female identities function in modern day consumer capitalism. It should be noted here, however, that the topic is so vast that of course, I must make generalizations based on patterns rather than specific instances to the contrary which are likely to be the minority of cases. As mentioned earlier, my frame of reference will be that of “‘difference’-related injustices” by which I mean not that women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, disabled people are inherently ‘different’ but rather to refer to groups who are outside the capitalist supremacy, namely that of white cis-bodied straight able males.

So, let’s dive in with one of the most widely publicized issues on the matter, that of the gender pay gap. Interestingly, in Western countries like the UK and the US, there remains a wide disparity in the overall earnings of men and women, despite their salaries, on the whole, being an equal rate of pay. Generally speaking, men and women are paid the same base rate for the same position at the same company. So if men and women are paid the same, surely there’s no problem? I wish, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Though salary is crucial in ensuring that males and females achieve financial parity, social factors play a huge role in determining one’s life earnings.

The infographic above picks out and highlights key social factors what lead to women being paid less on the whole than their male counterparts.

To really get to the bottom of the issue, we must examine how and what a woman is conceived as and how this might affect her behaviour. As Simone de Beauvoir famously put it in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. To this day, women conform to traditionally ‘female’ roles which often have a nurturing or passive aspect to them, perhaps accounting for why woman are overrepresented in ‘caring’ professions. Though of course women are not subject to the same kind of pressure as of the past where childbearing was an inevitability, there remains an unspoken assumption that this is the past that most women will take. Typically, men advance within their careers not because they are generally more capable, but because women take more time out from work to balance a home life and a career. More part-time jobs are taken up by women as well as time off for maternity leave and childcare. What initially seemed like a simple problem is evidently more complex than it first appears.

So, who or what is to blame? Is it rich, sexist business executives who’d rather not have to work alongside anyone not wearing a tailored suit and tie? Is it the government’s fault for not putting in place adequate measures to support working women? Annoyingly, there is no simple answer. Rather than looking for a specific party to blame, someone or something with a face, it might be worth taking aim of the structure of society itself. Capitalism engenders competition, creating and maintaining antagonistic relationships. In this particular scenario, women (with notable exceptions) are the losers in this game.

Much has been said recently too about the media’s role in the construction of gender and the implications for sexual and gender identity. As cliched as the example is, I will be bringing in the example of gender-oriented marketing targeted at young children, usually through thematic advertising or colour coding. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. A National Geographic article references the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sweet from the university of California, who has written about how the marketing of toys – previously heavily gendered – became more neutral with the rise of second-wave feminism. The tides were turned, however, with the 1980s where marketers saw an opportunity with ultrasound technology whereby parents were able to tell the sex of their child before birth. With the turn of the 21st century, this trend has only become more pronounced.

Crucially mentioned is the effect on the psychology of the child as they grow to adulthood. Toys that encourage “spatial thinking”, according to a 2012 report by Susan Levine, are both those that are generally marketed to boys and those that are important for “executive function” or “higher level thinking”, Levine using this evidence to explain for the “underrepresentation of women in science and tech”. This, however, is only on example of how capitalism manipulates the concept of gender to achieve the greatest prophet at the cost of its consumers. Boys fare no better than girls in this matter, for when young men feel as though they must rigidly conform of one definition of what it means to be a man, they inevitably suffer. The traits that corporations deem ‘masculine’, such as independence, strength, competitiveness and being emotionally distant are clearly not conducive to happiness when their implications are taken at face value. Neither are those deemed to be ‘feminine’, such as obedience, passivity and being overly-emotional.

Image result for perfume for him and her ad
Guilty: two perfumes, two people, two very different associations

 

Admittedly, the issue of gender identity and the myriad biological and cultural factors that contribute to it is vast and I wholeheartedly accept that I am making sweeping statements that will not apply in many cases. To be sure, I am out of my depth. For many of us, however, this is an important way of analyzing how we’ve processed the social and cultural signals sent our way over our lifetimes and of how we’ve understood and internalized them. On the whole, being gendered in this way does not make us happy. Capitalism is one factor contributing to these gender norms. Capitalism does not and will not make us happy.

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