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Equality Isn't Simple

By Nikhil R. Mulani

Success for a woman in corporate or political life is often chalked up to some combination of "personal determination” and “personal sacrifice.” The popular rhetoric of Sheryl K. Sandberg '91 speaks to this: her commencement address at Barnard exhorted women to overcome an “ambition gap” and advised listeners that “the most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is.” Simplifications such as these have reinforced the tendency for Americans to view gender inequality as a special interest issue, something that only women need to think about. In addition, they have led to a lack of discussion concerning how each citizen must play a role in making equal opportunity in the workplace a reality in the United States.

Anyone who wishes to pursue true gender equality must not only champion reproductive rights, but must also oppose the many systemic problems throughout America’s economy and society which affect women’s professional lives. Current workplace norms of career structure embody destructive value judgments dating back to the era of separate spheres. We must challenge these socio-economic structures, and the assumptions that underlie them, if we want to achieve equal opportunity in the workplace.

Robert O. Self, a professor of history at Brown University, recently wrote in the New York Times about how issues of gender equality and economic policy are inseparable. How society views gender, and turns its conceptions into law, is a crucial part of the social contract that also underlies our economy. As he puts it, this year’s election is about how “the economy and the culture wars…collapse together.” Efforts to reshape women’s place in the United States are not some niche issue. They are a greater struggle over “the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life.”

Self is correct when he describes how “in the candidates’ views of women we catch a glimpse of how we will write the social contract over the next generation.” But America’s condition of gender inequality is not merely a byproduct of laws concerning child-care, sex education, and abortion rights.

Familial and corporate structures, and the values underlying them, simultaneously work to determine gender’s place within the social contract. Changing unequal socio-economic systems and their underlying assumptions isn’t as simple as passing laws.

Perhaps it is not what is “in the candidates’ views of women,” but what is outside of our political discourse—what is simply accepted “as is”—which plays the greatest role in determining the future of gender equality in our country.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, explored the systemic nature of gender inequality, writing recently in The Atlantic about how women can not “have it all…with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.” Her wide-ranging examination maps a complex network of outdated perceptions embedded within political, corporate, and familial culture. She excellently points out how the typical American notion of work/life balance is skewed. As she notes, “workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.”

These outdated perceptions matter because they continue to manifest themselves in workplace norms, schedules and contracts—all of which create glass ceilings and reinforce notions of sacrifice and dependence on spousal choice, such as those voiced by Sandberg. Slaughter is correct in noting that “it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family.” Being of any gender in the United States should not entail trade-offs between professional and family life.

Our country has a complex case of gender inequality. It is caused, in part, by our eagerness to cast success as a purely individual endeavor, unrelated to societal standards—to declare that placing a high value upon family is tantamount to embracing an “ambition gap.” In order to change as deep-seated a societal defect as gender inequality, far-reaching legislation concerning workplace contracts may be useful, but insufficient. This is change that must also occur from the bottom-up.

We can, and should, advocate that any college or company we are a part of follow the lead of private bodies like Princeton, and adopt career tracks which mandate equivalent policies of track extension or workload relief for employees of any gender with new-born children. We can, and should, advocate for open and honest discussion about the fallacious use of “face-time” as a measure of workplace commitment.

But, most crucially, each of us must challenge our own assumptions: about the part we play in defining the social contract, and about the value of time spent with family as compared to the value of time spent at work.

Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.

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