How can we bridge the gender divide? An event on Wednesday at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas sought to address the issue from several different perspectives.
Victoria Bateman, an economist at the University of Cambridge and author of the forthcoming book The Sex Factor – how women made the West rich, said she had always been interested in how the West had managed to catch up and overtake the rest of the world in terms of economic power after millennia of being eclipsed by other civilisations. Her view is that the role of women in Western societies was an important determining factor, though that role has remained virtually invisible in economic history. The received idea, she says, is that economic success comes first and is followed by women’s rights and social progress. But what if it was the reverse?
Women’s role was “the elephant in the room” with regard to how Britain got rich, she stated. After the industrial revolution, she said, women in the UK married on average at 26 and, marrying later, they had fewer children. That kept population growth down and meant wages were higher than in countries where women married earlier and had more children. Families also had more money to invest in their children’s future and could afford to save more which benefited the economy. Women’s relative independence meant they could be more entrepreneurial and that families were more democratic. This had a knock-on effect on institutions, given “democracy is rooted in equality at home”, said Bateman.
She added that higher wages, a more skilled workforce, savings, investment, enterprise and democracy are necessary for economic advancement. She said if the West wished to stay ahead it should look to secure and advance women’s rights. In recent decades high wage/high productivity countries had collided with low economic freedom for women, low wage and low productivity countries due to globalisation, leading to increased competition and wage stagnation in the UK. Instead of resisting globalisation, Bateman said poorer countries should be encouraged to give women more control over their lives and bodies. “If those in power wonder why their country is poor they should look to the lives of their wives and daughters. If they do it will not only help them, but it will help us too,” she said.
Challenging ‘mums know best’
Duncan Fisher, veteran fatherhood campaigner who currently manages policy and innovation for the Family Initiative, spoke about the challenges in getting to more equal parenting and combating the idea that mothers are naturally the primary carer of children. The idea that ‘mum knows best’ was ingrained in British society through everything from parental leave pay to the way dads are encouraged to separate from their babies and are treated as “the helper”, said Fisher. That put an enormous social pressure on women and was a driver of inequality in the workplace.
Research showed children formed multiple attachments with carers in their early years and that each attachment was unique. Research also showed that dads’ brains changed the more they were involved in childcare and that this change was permanent and had a positive and lasting impact on children’s skills. The reason mums are primary carers is social, not psychological, he said, adding that it was not about competition between mums and dads, but creating “a community of care”. Engaged fatherhood needed to be celebrated and aspirational, he stated.
Topher Campbell is a theatre and film director. He questioned the stereotyped view of “toxic masculinity” and the pressure, particularly for black men, not to show intimacy. He said men ardently policed the performance of masculinity and policed themselves out of the ability to express the full extent of their humanity. Black men were kept in “narrow lanes” which stereotyped them in many ways. “The cliches have a real effect: the idea that we are more violent, less intelligent, less sensitive, less moral…To be a nerd is white, to be queer is white…this leads to separation and aggression and does not enhance our relationships with women. Black men loving black men is a revolutionary act,” he stated, citing the black gay author Joseph Beam. “We need to allow ourselves to be seen differently so we can break out of this prison.”
A sexist state
In the discussion afterwards, Topher Campbell said he was in favour of positive discrimination to counter the long legacy of negative discrimination against women and people from ethnic minorities at work. “It’s a blunt instrument, but we have to see that change,” he said. People are being held back, he said, and it was nothing to do with their talent.
Victoria Bateman spoke of how the state had adopted the male breadwinner model and this affected everything from school hours [that they don’t align with full-time working hours] to recent welfare changes under which family benefits are no longer paid directly to women. The state was sexist and should not necessarily be looked to for solutions, she said.
Duncan Fisher was asked about whether feminism was putting pressure on women not to be the primary carer when they might want to be. He said that women should be able to make their own decisions, but they should also be aware that their choices might have consequences for others, such as their partners.