Thursday, January 17, 2008

Can Women do Men's Work?

A sociologist once found two very different tribes existing close to one another. In one tribe, the Bauskota, she discovered the women spending most of their time out in the fields, farming, while the men stayed around camp and wove baskets. How unusual! she thought.

In the neighboring tribe, the Colere, she found the opposite. Women were in camp weaving baskets while the men labored in the fields. Noting these differences this sociologist began interviewing the members of each tribe.

Though the work of Colere women differed from Bauskota women, what remained the same was the belief that the men's work was more valuable, it ranked higher on the social status. The Bauskota's economy depended rather heavily on their ability to weave and then trade baskets for staple goods. The men has assigned this work for themselves, leaving the less significant work, farming, to the females.

Among the Colere, food gained through their rich farm lands, formed the backbone of their economy. Therefore, the men were farmers while the women stayed home to weave baskets, and tend to their young. Regardless of the work, women's work was considered "that which is lower."

While the names have been invented, the example is true to life in West Africa, as observed and reported by Christian sociologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwan, Gender and Grace: Love Work and Parenting in a Changing World (p. 113-114)

What happens when the most significant task in each tribe is reserved for the men? What do women learn of their value, of their contribution to society, the body of Christ and to their families?

We do not, unfortunately, need to journey to West Africa to find more examples of men's work and women's work. The same dibbying out of work happens today. The most skilled, most revered, most important work is reserved for male humans (and that is evident by merely looking at the gender of what I like to call the 3 "P's" priests, pastors, presidents). But when a woman tries to worm into these she is judged quite harshly as either unqualified, or even worse, unfeminine.

The New York Times featured an article, "The Feminine Critique" by Lisa Belkin on how women are in a pickle in the working world. Even 30 years after women entered the workplace in dominating numbers females cannot fully embrace their "feminine" side while at the same time be "taken seriously." Why is that?

When employees are asked to name the top quality in their ideal leader, regardless of this quality, (Switzerland said "problem-solving skills", United States and England said "their ability to inspire others", others said "team builder") women don't have it, at least not as much as men.

It's like the ancient Bauskota and Colere tribes, where the significant work can only done by the men, regardless of giftings or passions, if you are a female you're not going to be able to do it as well as a man. Why? Because it's "men's work." End of story.

Some women just act as they are expected to act, as feminine, which often means focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives." But when a woman acts feminine she is considered less competent. But what is her alternative? As the New York Times journalist, Belkin points out, when women "act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.” Women can’t win."

Women must choose between being respected but not liked, or liked but not respected.

So, I wondered if this was just a New York Times thing, what about regular, small town life? What about my female friends at work? Did they experience this, too?

When my brilliant horticulturist friend sacrificed her career as a Veterinarian and began landscaping for the family Nursery, she was regularly disappointed by the way men and women (she claimed the latter were even worse) would brush her aside demanding, "Where are one of those Japanese men? I want to talk to one of them." Though she knew twice as much as her Japanese father, grandfather, and uncles about their question, her gender prevented them from seeing her as a proficient expert on plants.

It seems to me that the problem is our perception of women, including our perception of ourselves, that woman staring back at us in our reflections. What do we expect to find when we look at a woman in Home Depot apron? or a female giving advice on landscaping? or mascara on the lashes of our doctor before surgery? Do we expect an adept, skilled, professional, or do we doubt their proficiency simply because she is a woman?


Emerald Uggs said...

Doesn't the value of the work depend on what is conferring that value? Could we not make a case that men are given less important role in the home because they are men? In the home, he is trash guy, lawn guy, kill-the-nasty-spider-in-the-closet guy, and bring-home-the-bacon-so-I-can-shop guy.

There is also the wide-spread assumption that single men would not be able to raise children as well as a single woman could. In divorce courts, custody is more frequently given to woman except in the face substantial evidence against her "fit-ness".

In fact, some women marry not because they love men, but because they want children; the man is merely a means to an end, and not an end in himself.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

I appreciate your comment, helping us be more aware of how men are being used and not valued today in the home! I know men who are currently valued most because of their sperm donation, not because they are image-bearers of God with their own dreams, goals, thoughts, choices and feelings.
I believe the value of the work ought to be determined by God, and the value of the person doing the work, which should not elevate the millionaire CEO over the mother, but nor should it elevate the mother over the office-working husband.
We DO use men in the home, like we use women in the marketplace, to meet our "utilitarian individualistic" needs, as bacon providers, as sperm donars, as the hard-hitting disciplinarians.
I'm currently reading The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, by sociologist Sharon Hays where she notes that even the most committed feminists are determined to believe that motherhood is a paramount job in their lives done best when WOMEN are the primary caretaker and done best when the husband plays second fiddle to their intensive (lavishing copious amounts of time, energy and material resources on the child) mothering. I could not disagree more with the current model that a child NEEDS his mother as the ONLY primary caretaker. I believe God is tremendously careful to note in his commands to the Israelites that it is the parents who rear the child, not just mom or dad. Therefore, the "fitness" of the mother is a modern day invention, something we've decided her lactation ability proves, or her emotional attachment proves, but not something we can prove with the Bible, nor with the test of history.

Jordyne said...

here is a question that many have proposed:
Does the woman wanting to do the " mans job" just renforce the idea that the mans job is more important?

Angela C said...

Maybe "important" is not the word; but more interesting or challenging to the mind or body. Comparing is always dangerous. If what I'm doing keeps me stimulated and challenged and I'm satisfied then I don't care if its considered more important or not. I'm being true to who I am as a person - my needs, my strengths, my interests and passions, my purpose.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Jordyne- I believe anytime you have a rush on a job (be it a man's or a woman's job), the demand (as basic economics teaches) pushes down the supply and thereby incites our demand. We can't have that, well, by golly we want it all the more. Denied pleasures are all the more desireable. But we have the difficult task of determining why we want to do this "man's job." Is it because we need to share our abilities with the body of Christ? Or are we out to prove woman's worth?

While I don't believe any job worth doing on earth is something either man or woman can do by themselves (everything from the creation and rearing of a child to the ministry in a church needs both male and female to be "very good"), a woman's motivation for wanting to do a "man's job" needs further investigation.

Why? Because a man is "in her way" or because someone told her she can't or because she's trying to prove her worth, her capability?
I think Angela speaks well to the problem of comparison. Is "man's work" tantalizing because someone said we couldn't do it? This is not the good life, because we then become slaves to mimicking whatever man does first.
A better question is, "Are we pursuing this job, role, position, dream because a chord has been struck in us, because we resonate with the work, because when we are caught up with the task we feel like "YES, this is what I was created to do"?