In the fight for equality the world must keep an open mind | Sarah Morrissey

Malala Yousafzai

It is contrary to Taliban ideology for girls to receive formal education. On January 5th, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban in October 2012 for standing up for women’s right to education, was released from hospital in the UK. Malala has the support of the international community which has come to accept that women and men are equal and should be treated as such with equal rights to education and opportunity. However, even in countries where this ideal has become entrenched, Ireland among them, it is the view of many that equality between the sexes has still to be achieved.

According to the European Commission in August 2012 the EU average for women in managerial positions is 33%, with the figure falling to 30% in Ireland. Across the EU the proportion of women directors in top quoted companies is only 3% and only one in ten company board members is a woman. In Ireland in 2007, women made up 64.7% and 77.5% of civil servants in general service and clerical grades. In contrast, women made up less than a quarter of those at secretary general level. It is also considered significant that the number of women that work part-time continues to out-number men, and that women make up 70% of staff in the health and education industry while men maintain a massive majority in sectors such as construction.

These statistics would suggest that women continue to choose careers that fit with the gender stereotype of the primary care-giver in a family and, as a result of this stereotype, women in other careers face greater challenges at climbing corporate ladders than their male counter-parts. Equality activists argue that despite political equality, gender stereotypes continue to be enforced by society, holding women back. But, is it society or women who are responsible for the lingering stereotype that women are the primary care-giver in a family? And is condemning the traditional role of women necessary to achieve equality?

Over the summer The Atlantic published an article entitled, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.’ It was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Slaughter also served as the director of policy planning at the US State Department from 2009 to 2011 and prior to that was the first female dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While working in the US State Department in Washington, Slaughter commuted from Princeton while her husband took on the ‘lion’s share’ of parenting their two teenage sons. However, after two years in Washington, Slaughter returned to Princeton due, for a large extent, to her desire to spend more time with her family. The article chronicles how the majority of high powered women in Washington either do not have a family or did not attain the highest positions until their family were grown. The article even details how women at the top of their career have left Washington and the dream job in order to spend more time with their family. She contrasts this with the trend for men in the same or equivalent positions to nearly always have a family. The article concludes that women, usually, are not as comfortable being away from their family as men – not because of society, but rather due to their own personal feelings and needs. According to Slaughter, this means that women cannot have it all, just yet. In contrast, I would suggest that Slaughter is defining ‘having it all’ incorrectly.

Having it all’ is subjective. Surely true equality means not only not having gender stereotypes define ‘having it all’, but not having other people of your gender define it for you. Is true equality not the ability to define ‘having it all’ yourself? So when Slaughter proposes creating a society where women can have it all in the form of creating a society where women can have high powered jobs and a family like men do, isn’t she promoting the status quo – a society that almost looks down on women that don’t want a high powered job at all and want to embrace the traditional role of being the primary care-giver? Is the concept of a woman not wanting the position on the board or at secretary general level that damaging to equality that it can never be considered as ‘having it all’?

Slaughter has a point; equality requires that women and men have equal opportunities. In order for women (due to their innate maternal nature, not society defined stereotypes) to have genuine equal opportunities in the context of climbing a corporate ladder, work practices and societal attitudes towards the concept of putting one’s family first do have to change. However, in order to achieve such equality it should not be necessary to alienate women who may not need that balance to ‘have it all’. When we seek equality between the sexes society should not forget the equally accepted ideal of respect for everyone’s opinion. A truly equal society does not define ‘having it all’ for its people based on their gender nor any other basis. A truly equal society affords everybody the opportunity to define ‘having it all’ for themselves – this applies to both women and men.

The international community may well have a role to play in helping Malala Yousafzai fight for equal rights to education. But if, when achieved, Malala does not fight for a high powered government position but instead decides to have a family, the international world should not mourn her decision and make her feel that she is abandoning the struggle for equality. Instead, the world should applaud her, and all others that have the strength to stand up for what they want in life against a rising opinion that they should want something else; equality is affording everyone the ability to go after what they want – it is not the concept that all men and women want the same thing.