Here we are again, celebrating March 8, International Women’s Day—the day that puts the spotlight on women’s rights.
Unfortunately, Soviet tradition has transformed this day into one that, instead of promoting equality, reinforces the inequality of women vis-à-vis men. On this day, women’s “feminine attributes” are celebrated, rather than their rights as equal citizens. In a way, this celebration “objectifies” women even more than the remaining 364 days of the year do.
On March 8, in particular, women in Armenia and other countries are referred to as “flowers,” “treasures,” “those responsible for the nation’s self-reproduction,” the “soft part of humanity,” etc. In other words, women are that extra touch to the male soul.
What actually, prompted me to write this piece was my recent discussion with a group of women in Yerevan, who play an active role in society and are not just limited to being housewives. In our discussion they had the impression that being this “extra touch to the male soul” was actually something positive and welcomed it, although my point was the exact opposite.
In talks about gender equality in Armenia and in other post-Soviet countries, the narrative that women push forward, half-jokingly, is that they are “stronger” than men, but they have to adapt and not show it – hence, the Armenian/Bulgarian saying (which can be found in different variations in other cultures) that “in the family, the man is the head and the woman is the neck.” In 2019, it may be high time for women to start thinking about themselves as being the “head” rather than remaining the “neck.”
This self-perception is evidently an indication of the sort of split state of mind a large number of women in the post-Soviet space are caught in: on the one hand they go by the belief that they are “stronger” than and “different” from men, but on the other, they have to adapt themselves to a social context where men dominate. This status quo is perhaps the hardest to break and has a negative impact on women’s positive self-perception and self-confidence. And while there are numerous structural obstacles for women to overcome on their path to equality, self-perception is one of the key factors often holding women back from standing on an equal footing with men.
Girls and women are regularly—openly and covertly—bombarded with the following message: “Know your place as a woman!” This message is echoed in various settings: the family, school, the workplace, and society in general. Girls should not be raised with the expectation that their social status and role as a wife and mother are pre-determined. This pressure, while limiting them to a single role under the motto that “female happiness” ought to be the highest value for them is actually a society’s subconscious “agenda” to maintain the status quo. This message places additional pressure on girls and young women, which does not contribute to their “happiness.” Happiness is, first of all, the ability to make one’s own choices, without feeling pressured to fulfil familial or societal expectations.
Gender self-stereotyping has been identified as a major hurdle for women in both educational and professional setups. Numerous studies have, for years now, shown that girls outperform boys at school, including in subjects such as mathematics, which are commonly viewed as male-dominated disciplines. However, at the workplace, women struggle more in terms of equal pay and career advancement. It is believed that women are less inclined to work in competitive environments, are more risk averse, or are more reluctant to ask for a pay raise.
In the minds of girls and women, their attributes should not be juxtaposed to those of boys and men by using qualifiers such as: “girls and women are smarter” “milder/stronger,” “empowered with more emotional intelligence” and the like. This juxtaposition, often promoted by women themselves serves as a self-defence and survival mechanism in an attempt not to challenge male-dominated societal norms. It also contributes to the flawed self-confidence of girls and women. As long as this juxtaposition, and the narrative of girls and women being smarter, stronger and better than men is promoted in the minds of girls and women, equality cannot be achieved. There should be no dichotomy between men and women in this respect. Girls and boys have to be raised with the idea that while there are indeed physiological differences between the sexes, gender should not factor in the roles that individuals have in society.
This brings up the issue of who is responsible for promoting this equality? Schools, the media, parents? My personal experience as a mother of two teenage girls is that the narrative of parents matters the most, and the one of mothers vis-a-vis daughters even more. Mothers as the primary caregivers are those who can greatly contribute for the situation either to proliferate or to change, and in this respect, they need to be empowered.
However, the challenge that a large number of working mothers face juggling at least two full time jobs—the actual job and the one of being a mother—can be a source of guilty feelings and lasting impressions of not being able to cope. To alleviate this sense of guilt, one could refer to a U.S. study which found that daughters of working mothers tend to have higher incomes compared to those who have stay-at-home moms. In this respect, the Soviet legacy is slightly different from the one that exists in the U.S. and other European states. Working mothers were the norm in the Soviet Union. One of the paradoxes in the Soviet Union was that women played an important role in society despite a massive misogynist backdrop. The “liberal” system that has replaced the “Soviet” one since the 1990s has only made the situation worse: the rights of women—particularly their social rights—became even more limited. The limitations on social rights in turn created a cascade effect on political and civil rights.
Perhaps one of the main challenges to push these limits is to help girls and women realize that being a working mother provides them with more credentials to have an important role acknowledged by society rather than taking on the role of merely supporting a man.
Providing equal opportunities for men and women in education, recruitment, and at the workplace is important, but not sufficient. It is also important to consider the social and economic backgrounds of women. A girl who did not have the chance to receive good quality primary and secondary education because she was busy taking care of her siblings and the household, or who was pressured (or at best, nudged) by her family to get married in her teens or early twenties, will not have the same opportunities as a boy who was not burdened with similar responsibilities and expectations. Therefore, the role of the state and society is to provide the extra stimulus - what some call “positive discrimination,” for girls to enjoy equal opportunities.
Furthermore, the paradigm shift with respect to gender equality will not happen in a vacuum—again, it will happen if the general context of “minds” changes with respect to anti-discrimination and inclusiveness. Gender segregation cannot be abolished unless other forms of discrimination in society are addressed, be that against persons with disabilities, members of the LGBTI+ community, or ethnic, religious and other minorities.
When women stand up and fight for gender equality, they have a general tendency to justify why they have the right to hold elected positions, to be ministers, or CEOs. A common argument—which seems rather like a flawed one—for supporting women’s contribution in these spheres is that since women are predisposed to be caregivers, they are more concerned about the general good and come with greater emotional intelligence. I believe that women are neither better nor worse than men—they can be as good or as bad as men in all areas of public and private life. There are as many incompetent women as there are incompetent men in all aspects of society. However, there is one simple reason why there should be parity between women and men: it is the fact that women make up roughly half of the population and this fact should be reflected in all aspects of society. To get there, women should be given equal opportunities to prove how un/equal they are.
Hence, why should gender equality matter for society? Only to be nicer to women? Just to feel better?
Gender equality matters for a number of reasons. It is a civilizational choice and culture for the state and society. Gender equality matters also for the sake of diversity. Diversity of thoughts, approaches, experiences, and backgrounds provides more opportunities for the community to be more creative, to navigate through adversity, and to evolve. It also makes society more inclusive and fair to all of its citizens (and not a select few) and ensures that it is perceived as such by its members.
I am not promoting a utopian society that is gender-blind—that will not happen anytime soon. It is rather a vision of society that strives to be more inclusive, more diverse, fairer, and without fears of losing control: that is the kind of society that will excel.
Girls and women should be actively exposed to various ideas and be offered a different outlook on gender equality, as well as encouraged and empowered to gain self-confidence. This should be done to entrench the conviction that their own personal choices are more important than the choices that society makes for them.
According to behavioral science, what really matters is the context as it defines people’s behavior and reactions—the context with respect to gender equality should start changing and everyone could contribute to this change. Change does not happen overnight, nor is it an easy process. However, change is important for the well-being of states, societies, and individuals. Winston Churchill is credited for saying “to improve, is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” For most societies today, the challenge should be to achieve improvement, rather than perfection. Once gender equality is achieved in society, striving for perfection will be easier.