More reflections on sexism: perhaps it can never be eradicated

After writing my largely facetious blog on journals, surgeons, and sexism I found myself reflecting more on sexism–and reaching a dismal conclusion.

The BBC has just been through a publicity storm when it disclosed that its male employees were paid 10% more than female employees, two thirds of its highest paid on-air people were men, and the very highest paid on-air people were all men. The fact that the average pay gap between men and women in British organisations is 18% was largely glossed over, and the BBC has committed itself to reducing the pay gap to zero by 2020.

All organisations above a certain size are going to have to disclose their gender pay gap, and that’s good. The problem arises, as a woman chief executive said on the radio this morning, because woman fill more of the lower positions in an organisation and men the higher positions. To pay a man more than a woman (or the other way round) for doing exactly the same job is illegal, but when it comes to “talent” you are rarely comparing “like with like.”  Should Beethoven be paid more than Schubert for a sonata? And is it acceptable that the variation in pay among footballers who play the same 90 minutes may be more than a thousandfold?

So closing the gender pay gap is not just a matter of paying women more or men less, it requires fundamental changes in the relationship of men and women. The rock on which much of the goodwill breaks is that in most societies believe (not think) that it is women who must take the lead in caring for children.

I read in the Financial Times about how in the 50s men ranked intelligence 11th in the qualities they looked for in a wife–below cooking abilities, housekeeping skills, and her “pleasing disposition.” By the 1996 intelligence was up to fifth and now it’s first. The female author of the piece observes that it’s “slightly depressing that such a survey exists” (and I agree), but it does offer some evidence that attitudes that seem deep can change quickly.

I mused on all of the worthy stuff about closing the gender pay gap as I listened to a woman explain why the Scotch Whisky Association had taken the Scottish government to court to try and overturn its policy of introducing a minimum price for alcohol. As an enthusiast for public health I would be expected to be offended by the line of the Scotch Whisky Association, probably to the point of not listening to what their spokesperson said. And if it had been the usual middle-aged male spokesperson that would have been the case, but I found myself listening closely to what the spokeswoman said. She seemed to be speaking truth; she was calm, caring, reasonable, motherly even. Ultimately she was putting business and jobs ahead of health, but she nearly convinced me.

This was deep sexism–in the sense of making judgements not on the basis of reason but of qualities I associate with women. I doubt that I can ever rid myself of that: my unconscious convictions about female characteristics go too deep to be rooted out. Plus I can’t stop myself being physically attracted to women in a way that I’m not to men.

I seem to be arriving at the dismal conclusion that sexism–assumptions and behaviours based on nothing but gender–cannot be eradicated, as I’m sure racism can. But the gender pay gap can be closed.


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