In the light of Corona – Part 18: Concerns of a closet feminist

First a disclaimer. I have never read anything scholarly regarding feminism studies, so unlike in the majority of my blog postings, the following viewpoints are my own, not grounded on extensive research I’ve scrutinised. All of the following thoughts and observations are based on my 40+ years of experience as a female. 

Then some background. I grew up with my mother, her sister, my grandmother and her six sisters. There were some brothers and hubbies as well in my grandmother’s generation, but they never played a notable role in my childhood. I also have a sister and a brother, who was the sole male family member in our extended family. Everything that needed doing got done, and as a child I never quite figured out what men were needed or good for. 

Through some twists and turns, I then in my teens and early adulthood ended up studying professionally classical music. As life would have it, my instrument was French horn, which made me a part of the predominantly male brass family of the symphony. I was often the only girl in the whole brass section, spending my study, work, and leisure related time as “one of the guys”, in which I became quite adept. 

Subsequently my hobbies have seemed to follow the same pattern: I either have all-female hobbies like riding and dancing or all-male hobbies like bow-hunting and board work (yes, I’m exaggerating a bit for the sake of story-telling, I do know dancing men and board working women). It was only much later in my life that I ended up spending time in settings where men and women were relatively equally represented. And it was only then that I began to realize what’s the fuzz about gender equality – after all, that is not something visible from the viewpoint of someone solely surrounded by females, or someone being the only female in a given surrounding. Having the luck of seeing things from these three perspectives has made me rethink the role of women in our Finnish society.

Finnish gender equality before corona disruption

As a Finnish woman it seems petty to be pointing out gender issues. We are, after all, in global and historical perspective, as far progressed in gender equality as anyone has ever been. We have (and have had) women in top political positions, there is little structural discrimination when it comes to the opportunities of pursuing any education, profession, ambition as a woman. Fathers take care of their children, not only in terms of providing for the material needs, but also by being present as nurturers, taking part in the immaterial rearing up. This is why I am a closet feminist – whining about gender issues in our society today feels unjustified as there are so many bigger problems out there. 

But while our gender equality problems as Finnish women are not topping the list of societal problems, it does not mean that they do not exist – nor does it mean that in order to start addressing them, we would first need to solve all the bigger and perceivably more important problems. So, while I am feeling somewhat uncomfortable doing this, I’ll point out a few issues I have encountered in my pre-corona life. 

When playing horn, if I made a mistake, it showed that “girls cannot play” which meant that not only did I not get the next gig, but another woman was not asked either. If a male colleague made one, it showed that “he made a mistake, but made an effort and has talent”, and was awarded a new chance of proving himself. The same applies in many other settings, especially when women are in leadership positions (go read the social media discussions commenting our current prime minister, if you doubt me). 

When we get together in bunches of couples, the men and women are separated into distinct groups where men talk about general and external, “more important” issues, and women about domestic issues. Regardless of whether the women would be more interested in joining the general and external issue discussions or not, it is just not done, as I’ve learned in many occasions when I would have preferred chatting politics over comparing recipes. (And I’m not alone: why do we clever women revert to weird housewives in those settings?)

In the middle-class suburban area where we live, my kids’ friends’ families consist of mothers working in public sector (in social and healthcare related professions) with smaller salaries and fathers in private sector (in engineering or sales) with larger salaries. Fathers are active as junior league coaches, and mothers do the background support tasks of fund raising, coordination, buffet running. Mothers organize the daily life, and delegate certain tasks to the fathers: it is the responsibility of the mother to know when a kid needs new shoes, but the father can then be sent out shopping, provided with the information about the right size and style. Even acknowledging this does not help – our household is a living proof. (And if you don’t see the problem in this description, ask your wife.)

If a woman is too attractive, she has to be thrice as capable as a man to be taken seriously. If a woman is too unattractive, no level of achievement is enough for her to be taken seriously. The path in between is narrow, but awareness of it is mandatory if a woman is to be taken seriously in work contexts. Having strayed on both sides, as most of us have, has taught the ropes.

None of these exemplary cases screams out injustice, unfairness or intentional under-appreciation of women. The equality issues are implicit, not explicit, based on nuances and basic assumptions, making it difficult to pinpoint the problems, without seeming ‘hysterical’ for mentioning them. They do not pertain to big, more evident wrongnesses such as sexual abuse, physical mishandling, institutional suppression, lack of official rights – and that makes them all the more problematic. This is why pointing out these things often awakens the debate about the innate differences in men and women: after all, if it’s just a question of men and women being fundamentally different, then the disparities in the roles of men and women are not about equality, but simply about preferences. As it is stated, it’s not that women could not get high-paying positions, but that they don’t want them. If that is so, where’s the problem in that?

Little problems, big outcomes

While I fully agree that men and women are different and may have different tendencies and aptitudes as collectives, not only as individuals, there are still implicit but structural sources of gender inequality, even in Finland. In my view, some of the implications of the corona disruption shed light to these issues of implicit inequality between men and women – yes, still, and even in Finland.

I’m writing this from the position of privilege. I’m employed in an organization where women and men are equally represented both in terms of formal metrics and informal power positions and assumptions. My husband has always been a committed father, fully shouldering the responsibilities of a parent. I have no direct visibility or close contacts to families suffering from domestic abuse, overt alcoholism or the like – I’m currently inhabiting a perfectly sheltered middle-class bubble where it is acknowledged that big problems exist, but out of sight and mind. 

Therefore, I’m not talking about the big problems the social distancing measures have resulted in. My attention is on two little things. These little things do not seem important in themselves, but they erode the already achieved gender equality, contributing to the list of minor things that aggregate into a society where men and women still inhabit different realities when it comes to chances of pursuing meaningful work – not only something to do in order to get a pay check. 

Corona and productivity

As stated, while both mothers and fathers are, in Finland, predominantly currently involved in genuinely taking care of the children, the roles are different. Women carry the bulk of organizing and knowing what to do, while men execute clearly defined tasks asked from them (this is actually supported by research). When the schools and kindergartens closed, in most families the responsibility of the kids gravitated to where it always outside work tends to gravitate, to mothers. I’m not claiming that there would not have been fathers who would have been almost equally impacted by the need of taking care of kids and work at the same time, however the question is not only about who does what, but about who thinks and organizes who does what – and that has almost always been the dominion of women. 

This means that in most families, while the tasks could overtly be equally distributed, the mothers took on the responsibility of organizing those tasks, monitoring their progress, being aware of how things seemed to be going with kids. In a majority of the households, women who had used to being able to focus only on work related things during the time spent working, found their focus split between the exact same work requirements as men, and the additional responsibility of children. The attitude seems to be that men pitch in when they can (because they have more important jobs if measured on level of income), and the women take care of everything else. Adding to this the role of daughters as care-takers of the older generation, the always-present distribution of responsibilities has this spring rosen to a next level for women. 

It is not a question of having equal amounts of time to get the work-related things done, as that can be measured and solved through explicit discussions. Instead, it is a question of the energy that is left over after caring and organizing. The outcomes of the left-over energy in inequality are evident in for example the fact that the corona era has seen a notable increase in the journal publication submissions by men, and a dramatic decrease in the same submissions by women. Even if the writing time was equally divided in between the tasks of child care, the overall bearing of responsibility has left women with less energy to focus on producing academic texts. More men seem to have been able to shed off other concerns when not immediately undertaking child-related tasks, whereas women have not been able to do so.

In our field, where the publications equal career currency, this spring has amplified the differences between mother and father academics. While even in normal times the women tend to struggle more with having enough time and energy to take care of both home and work-related responsibilities, the added burdens of corona disruption have in many cases acted as the straw that breaks the camels’ back. In a way this is a good thing, as it clearly highlights the underlying structures that still make it easier for men to pursue meaningful work where they can focus all their energies on. It is still more acceptable for men to isolate themselves into a bubble of “do not disturb” to get “the important” work done – we mothers in turn must always be available. 

Corona and visibility

It is a second nature to most women to put on some make-up before being seen in public. This is more than a habit: it is about the internalized necessity of walking the narrow path of the right amount of attractiveness that buys credibility. Putting on make-up can be fun, and done to please oneself, but ultimately it is about the internalized assumption of how a woman should look like to be both likeable (as we must be, because an unlikeable woman is but a bitch, whereas a man is assertive, individualistic, lone genius) and credible. 

We humans cannot help reading things into the appearance of other individuals at the first glance, and going against our gut-level reactions is hard: while we at a conscious level could exclaim not caring whether a woman is groomed or not, intuitively we cannot help but react to it, be we ourselves men or women. Not using make-up is perceived as an intentional statement or an unintentional signal of general frumpiness of the woman. The first translates to aggression (not wanted in a woman) and the second to sloth (not wanted in a woman or an employee). So, whether we explicitly acknowledge it or not, most of us women wanting to be taken seriously in work contexts pay attention to our appearances, trying to stay on the narrow path between too attractive and unattractive. 

Now that we have been working remotely, most of us women have not bothered with make-up. (Of course, if there actually are women who do it for their own enjoyment, they have surely been holding on to those routines even without having others than family members present.) The meetings have been taking place as teleconferences with video streaming opportunities. For men, having the video on or off is a question of bandwidth or meeting practices. But for us make-up free women, there is a third viewpoint we must consider, whether we explicitly own up to it or not: can we bear and dare being seen without our normal work face painted on, or not?

In most of the meetings I have been to, with no other meeting instruction involved, it is typical to have men present with videos and women only as voices. Politically incorrect as I am, the few women daring enough to have the video on, look tired and pale compared to their normal work faces (sorry!). In all videoconferences, I engage in internal struggle over this dilemma: do I want to be more present and show my bland face, or do I accept the role as a set of initials and a disembodied voice? (No, my laziness in on the level of not even thinking about putting on make-up, the third theoretical option is off the table.)

This example highlights the impact that the appearance still has on how women in work contexts are perceived. While men are increasingly paying more attention also to their appearances, for them it is still predominantly an add-on, something extra, whereas for any women, acknowledging this and constantly monitoring the way they are seen, is, in most work settings, mandatory. This translates to another drain of energy and focus, visible also in students: the young women have to not only be best in their studies, but also spend a big portion of their time and energy in shaping their looks into something they perceive ‘right’ (yes, young men are also increasingly adopting this attitude, but still to a lesser degree). 

The teleconferencing choice we women face has interesting implications. Does our invisibility in video conferences lead to increased invisibility as work place members, making us loose our position as fully-fledged members of the work society? Are we starting to perform a reverse role from the one into which we have been traditionally pushed, as someones to be heard but not seen? Are we unwittingly positioning ourselves “out of sight, out of mind”? Or, if showing our tired, not touched-up faces, are we giving out signals that paint us as less effective, less enduring, less eager workers? What kind of an impact will that have on the future responsibilities and opportunities we would like to get?

Stepping out of the closet

As stated, I have never considered myself as a feminist, nor have I encountered overt discrimination grounded on my femaleness. I have been able to pursue whatever I’ve ever felt like pursuing, looking for reasons for my failures from my very personal idiosyncratic features and traits instead of my gender. I have a family and a fulfilling job.

However, in my view the corona disruption has illustrated also the hidden, assumption-level, underlying obstacles to reaching genuine gender equality also in Finland. I’ve here addressed only two, but the list does not end there. These hidden issues are very difficult to tackle because firstly, they seem so minor that complaining about them feels stupid when considering the big social problems, and secondly, even identifying them requires such levels of intuition and perceptivity that can, if wanted, be considered as bordering paranoia.

I’m pretty sure that some readers of this blog may feel insulted because they have as fathers been taking care of their kids, and because they have never considered evaluating women based on whether they have make-up on or not. However, while we have the enlightened amongst us, it does not mean that on the collective level of our Finnish society these things would not exist in problematic quantities. 

The women simply have a larger number of (implicit) expectations they have to meet if they want to pursue meaningful careers in addition to having a family. The ones of us who have both, have all found a fragile balance between the diverse responsibilities, our individual coping mechanisms for constantly straddling different roles – and we have learned to take these demands of our energy so for granted that we hardly even think about them. But for many of us, the corona disruption has shattered this fragile balance.

Among all the other notable societal level problems we need to address when rebuilding our normal, the issue of gender equality is one. It is a good time for becoming a feminist (or, in my case, stepping out of the closet I’ve long inhabited), because maybe, just maybe, there are openings we can use to further promote genuinely equal chances for all individuals. Maybe in the disruption the fathers are growing into increased domestic responsibility, and maybe we learn to see women as persons, not as made-up faces.

Or maybe I’m just paranoid, a tired hag whining about issues of no real importance to anyone.

Milla

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