Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: Iss. 4 :: November 1999
The second sex
Porus P. Munshi
IN almost all societies, through history, women have occupied a secondary position vis-a-vis men. When new societies are formed, both men and women start out as equals. Over a period of time, however, men begin to acquire more power and get the easier or more desirable roles.
Take the Israeli Kibbutzim and the communist revolutions. When they began, there was no sex role differentiation. In the Kibbutzim, men and women took turns at all tasks from field labour to laundry to cooking and caring for children.
Today, work seems to follow along traditional gender lines. Men do the agricultural and mechanical work, and women do the house work. In the communist revolutions, women again played an equal role. They fought alongside the men and both shared equally the tasks and jobs of daily living. After the revolutions ended, men invariably became more equal than women.
Why does this happen? Why does society begin on an equal footing and then get divided into male domination and female submission? This takes place because of three reasons: One, the way gender inequalities have evolved over the past one million years; two, the institutionalisation of this inequality; and three, the psychological differences between the genders.
Evolution of gender inequality
Male and female inequality in society evolved over a period of several millennia. While differences exist in almost all societies, in primitive societies women are comparatively more equal than in civilised societies.
Three reasons have contributed to this graded inequality:
(i) The human tendency to form groups,
Human beings have an innate tendency to form groups and affinities. Some times for the most trivial reasons. Social Psychologist Henry Tajfel found that when people are divided at random into 2 groups labelled X and Y, the Xs felt an immediate affinity with other Xs and the Ys with other Ys.
Further, they also felt an antipathy towards members of the other group, thus forming in-groups and out-groups. Almost any situation can produce such groups - a train journey, a bus breakdown, sharing the same name, a birthday, or even the same year of birth. These meaningless groups are now being called granfalloons, based on the characters in Kurt Vonnegut's novel 'The Cat's Cradle'.
What makes granfalloons so important is that differences between groups are exaggerated and the out-group members are often dehumanised and treated derogatorily. This formation of in-groups and out-groups is the basis of all forms of prejudice.
The first granfalloons in a tribe of Neanderthal equals may all have occurred along gender lines. The savannahs of Africa could not support more than two people per square mile around the time of Homo erectus - the immediate ancestor of modern man (J.Bronowski; The Ascent of Man; BBC, 1973). Some members of the tribe would necessarily have to range far afield to acquire food for the tribe and this role would have fallen mainly to men because women would be slowed down by having to care for the young.
As men travelled farther and farther afield, the necessity of co- operation, the shared dangers of the hunt, the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of victory and the genetic programming for altruism where one sacrifices his life for another, may all have contributed to the male bonding unique to the human species. This male bonding has ever since served to exclude women and place them permanently in the out-group.
The next stage in evolution was the shift from hunting animals to domesticating them. An individual's worth began to be measured by the number of domestic animals he owned.
By this time society may have divided into haves and have-nots with the bulk made up of the have-nots. Men alone owned animals and they could use them as payment to get the prettiest or hardest working wives as some tribes in Africa still do. Thus may have begun woman's subjugation. Once a payment has been made, one feels a sense of ownership. Women became the property of their fathers and husbands, and were always worth less than men.
As civilisation progressed, the emergence of society required organised roles. Hierarchies began to be formed and human beings divided themselves on the basis of profession: warriors, priests, traders and serfs. Identity and status began to derive from profession and professions became hereditary.
The formation of hierarchies served to further subjugate women by formalising inequality at all levels. Within these hierarchies, women have always been placed inferior to the men of their own class. For instance, a warrior's wife may be considered superior to men of lower classes, but always inferior to men of the same class. This happened because, within these classes, women began to derive their positions from the status and rank of their fathers and husbands. For example in the army, a general's wife is superior to a brigadier's wife who is superior to a colonel's wife and so on. Since a woman's power was derived by association, not only was she placed inferior to the males in her class, she was also dependent on them for her power. This powerlessness has contributed a lot to the subjugation of women.
Thus, as society evolved, power, which is the basis of all dominance-submission relationships also evolved. First came the power that comes from unity and bonding - Group Power, then the power of property - Economic Power, and finally the power based on hierarchy and tradition - Authoritarian Power. All this power concentrated in men's hands, thus effectively pushing women into the powerless and consequently secondary group.
Institutionalisation of inequality
Inequality has been so institutionalised, that till very recently, women did not even question the right of men to wield power over them. Women had not only accepted the right of men to rule, but had also accepted male superiority as a natural order of things. Even the most intelligent and dynamic women considered themselves to be inferior to men. How has this to inequality become so widely accepted? Three factors, all inter-linked have played a role: Religion, Fear of Freedom and Myths exaggerating male-female differences.
Religion and Morality
In all the major religions of the world. Women have occupied a secondary position vis-a-vis men. From China came ancestor worship - male ancestor of course. From India came Rama and Sita and the concept of woman's virtue and the idea that a woman is guilty until proven innocent and even then guilty. From Judea came the idea of woman being created from man's rib for the sole purpose of keeping him entertained. From the sands of Arabia came the purdah and the value of a woman's testimony being worth half of that of man's.
How did all this happen?
Firstly, God has always been a male creation. As novelist Terry Pratchett says, a god is focus of beliefs. If enough people believe, a god is born. The more the number of believers, the more powerful the god grows. Men have often created gods to suit themselves. Sati mata is one such example. It was economically convenient for the wife to die along with her husband, Ergo: the wife who killed herself became a goddess.
Secondly, the objective of organised religion is not so much the enhancement of an individual's spirituality as the maintenance of political and priestly power through control of the masse. This control is maintained in the form of the hierarchy discussed earlier.
The easiest way of gaining control over someone is to give him power over someone else below him, and ensure that the power is seen to be granted if not by you, at least by the same source that has granted you power over him i.e. the system grants power. To gain power over men, every man had power over someone below him and all men had power over women. Even the most humble serf had power over his wife.
Over time, the rules that evolve to share power and maintain control become institutionalised. There's always a right way and a wrong way of doing things. The right way is to do something the way society approves of - it's also the way that favours the powerful and is called the Moral way. Morality enjoins obedience of the weak to those who have more powers As Russel says (Power, 1938),"Morality is the inculcation of obedience. It is the duty of children to submit to parents, wives to husbands, servants to masters, subjects to princes, and religious matters laymen to priests."
The function of morality is to maintain the status-quo and prevent any form of behaviour that could cause society to slip into anarchy. It is enjoined both internally and externally on the individual, internally through the development of the conscience and externally through state and religious laws. Conscience develops through the internalisation of parental dos and don'ts. These become our inner voice or Voice of Judgement. We then praise ourselves and feel good when we behave in ways our parents/authority figures approve and punish ourselves through guilt and depression when we behave in ways our parents/authority figures would disapprove of. This approval-disapproval extends to gender specific behaviour.
The state enforces morality through rules and laws. Consider the following extract from Bertrand Russel's 'The Will to Doubt', where he discusses the rules of the State of New York regarding teachers: "This law provides that ... the teacher who does not approve of the present social system ..must surrender his office" and that "no person who is not eager to combat the theories of social change should be entrusted with the task of fitting the young and old for the responsibilities of citizenship."
Thus, according to the law of the State of New York, both Christ and George Washington were too degraded morally to be fit for the education of the young. If Christ were to go to New York and say 'Suffer the little children to come unto me', the president of the New York School Board would reply: 'Sir, I see no evidence that you are eager to combat theories of social change....therefore no children will be allowed access to you." (Bertrand Russel; The Will to Doubt).
Women had a number of laws, both social and religious, applicable to them and aimed specifically at 'guarding morality'. Moral transgressions by woman were punished more harshly than men's transgressions were.
This is not to say that the founders of the world's religions had any such ideas as the subjugation of women. That was the work of those who came later - the disciples and priests. Especially, the priests. It was they who removed religion from spirituality and placed it firmly in the socio-political framework. Religion became a tool for carrying out political ends by giving the means a divinity. For example, if the political end was subjugation of people, the king was made divine or ruled with divine approval. If the end was the subjugation of women, the husband was made head of the family through divine approval.
Fear of freedom
Today, a number of women are stuck in unsatisfactory family roles and relationships even though, unlike in the past, they know they are not being fair to themselves. They rationalise saying 'its for the kids' or 'I've spent so many years like this, what's the point in making changes now?' or 'he loves me so much'. Very few acknowledge that the changes are not being made because of the fear of the consequences of those changes. Any move towards freedom brings with it loneliness and responsibility. And most of us are afraid of both.
Biologically, we are among the weakest species and have always needed to band together for survival. Safety lay in numbers and being alone usually meant death. There may thus exist an almost primeval fear of being left alone. And yet, there may also be an equally strong need for independence. In all cultures we admire the lone hero who comes, fights massive odds (Society?) and disappears victorious into the sunset. The stories and the glorification of such lone heroes point to an unfulfilled need within us. Most of us would like to be like these heroes, but are afraid of the price we'd have to pay - loneliness, and constant battle. We also lack the confidence in ourselves to attempt the step. For a long time, women who bucked the norms and went into jobs or businesses for themselves paid the price of loneliness. No one would marry them.
Thus, we're often torn between the need for freedom and the need for companionship and community. If we choose freedom, the price attached is loneliness. If we choose community, the price is often the loss of individuality. Most of us choose the community because it's safer and less threatening. According to Erich Fromm we use various mechanisms to escape from the burden of freedom (Escape From Freedom; 1941). One of the most common escape mechanisms that a majority of individuals, both men and women, use is 'Automation Conformity'. "The individual ceases to be himself (or herself). He/She adopts entirely the kind of personality offered by cultural partners; and therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him/her to be. The discrepancy between 'I' and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness..the person who gives up his/her individual self and becomes an automation identical with millions of other automatons around, need not feel alone and anxious anymore. But the price he/she pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his/her self." (Erich Fromm; The fear of freedom, 1942).
Most women through history have adopted this particular mechanism of escape and have consequently tied themselves with bands of steel to the very society that discriminates against them.
Male and female psychological differences
Male and female differences in thinking and reasoning do exist. Men tend to look at a issues from a logical or societal perspective while women take an emotional, personal and family perspective. Take the simple question: 'What is the function of the family? In answering, men tend to use words like 'basic unit', 'society' and 'stability', while women tend to use words like 'companionship', 'love', 'affection', 'togetherness'. Men also tend to have greater visio-spatial ability while women tend to have greater linguistic ability.
This brings us to the question that since psychological differences do exist and even egalitarian societies like the kibbutzim breakdown into male-female inequality, are women really hard-wired to be the subordinate sex?
Psychological differences between any two individuals exist because of inherited characteristics and the influence of the environment.
Heredity and Environment
Inherited characteristics include temperament which includes factors and traits like introversion, extroversion, impulsiveness, reserve, activity, liveliness, excitability, anxiety. Now, there is no evidence that women inherit more of one kind of factors and men another. As a matter of fact, in human beings (as in all mammals), equal transmission of genetic characteristics from both patents to children of either sex occurs. This ensures that there can never be one-sided development based on sex the way, say, the peacock is different from the peahen. So if both men and women inherit largely equal personality characteristics, the differences between them must be due more to conditioning and early environmental influences.
What are these environmental factors? And can they really play such a large role? Let's examine the second question first. Experimental studies on kittens show that when newly born kittens are raised in a vertically deficient environment (i.e. where are no vertical objects/lines and everything is horizontal), they keep crashing into vertical objects like table and chair legs when let into normal rooms. Their brains cannot recognise vertical objects. The neuron network is incomplete because they have been raised in a deficient environment. Experimental studies on rats and monkeys too show that the richer and more varied the environment they grow up in, the more intelligent and curious the animals become.
In the human context, environment extends not only to the physical environment but also to the social - that's why single children are usually much less at ease in social contexts than those who have siblings are. Also, as Adler found out, a person's ordinal position (order of birth) has an effect on his/her personality. Eldest children are more dominating and aggressive, youngest children are more friendly and sociable, middle children are detached.
Given the above, it is not surprising that something an important as the sex of the child plays a major role in his/ her psychological development. Experimental studies show that when subjects are shown a baby crying and asked to judge whether it is crying because it is angry or frightened, when the baby is dressed in boy's clothes, subjects judge it to be crying out of anger. The same baby in girl's clothes is judged to be crying out in fear!! Children's behaviour is judged and responded to accordingly even at such early ages. This leads to gender specific roles that boys and girls have to grow into.
By gender roles, we mean sex appropriate behaviour. This behaviour is acquired through child training, identification with role models and through mass media like TV and cinema.
Sex appropriate behaviour is exhibited through clothing, personal grooming, speech, behaviour, interests and preferred vocations. It is also reinforced through parental expectations and peer group pressure.
Psychological differences between males and females therefore do exist, but not so much due to sex as due to differences in child rearing. If both boys and girls were raised absolutely equally in all ways, we'd most probably see much less differences in perceptions, responses and drives.
The Present Trend
Can women ever take their rightful place in society? They're beginning to. Society is not gender free yet, but it's getting there. Class and pecking orders are now being established on the basis of ability and not on the accidents of birth or sex.
Things are changing mainly because an increasing number of women are not only working outside the home, but are also occupying positions that have so far been exclusively in the male domain. As Alvin Toffler says, "we are now shifting away from an economy based on muscle-power to one heavily based on mind-power-and that eliminates a crucial disadvantage for women."
As any youth music channel shows, there is growing awareness of the true differences between the sexes. Differences that are being celebrated and not used to subjugate one sex or the other. We are moving towards what psychologist Sandra Bem calls Androgyny - a non-gender-specific world. Androgynous people combine the best of masculine and feminine qualities. Freed from gender roles and stereotypes, they can assert their rights one moment and be warm and tender in another. They are free from the strait jacket of gender specific behaviour.
As men and women both move towards what Abraham Maslow calls Self-Actualisation - achieving one's full potential, there will necessarily be a shift in intimate relationships. Old patterns of family structure and behaviour will no longer hold true. Both men and women will have to give each other room to grow in as Individuals.
For perhaps the first time since the dawn of mankind, women now have the opportunity to overcome the gender inequalities that have evolved. As more and more women break free and a critical mass is achieved, society as we know it could change completely and a new social order based on complete democracy and freedom could come into being. And a new social character of the individual could develop....we'll just have to wait for that critical mass. It could be less than a generation away.