Measuring the success of feminism

Thanks Kristin for pointing me to this article about the falling participation rates of women in senior levels of business in Australia, over at The Punch.  It’s a great piece and well worth a read for its careful and balanced approach to the debate.

The crux of the discussion is whether we (feminists/women/the business world/society at large) should be appauled by the declining numbers of women in the upper echelons of business.   Once a leading light in the advancement of women in senior enterprise, Australia now lags behind the US, UK, South Africa and New Zealand.

My own brand of loosely defined feminism expects all opportunities to be made available to women, but fundamentally hands the choice to the woman herself.  I blogged a while ago on my self discovery around this issue – my highly qualified sister chose to become a stay at home mum around the same time that I found myself on a conference call at work tutting about companies that don’t have enough female representation on the board.

The Punch article puts my thoughts much more suscinctly:

…before we cry “gender foul” and raise the spectre of discrimination … we must also allow for the possibility that a growing proportion of women – including university educated professional women – have made a choice not to pursue their careers to the highest levels.  That they’ve worked out where their priorities (and the joys in life) actually lie.

We must allow for the fact – not often debated and discussed in polite circles –  that many women, while immensely enjoying their careers, view parenting as their most satisfying and important role in life.

There’s a chance that Australian women have actually figured this out and are making choices based on what’s right for both them and their family unit.  Women are smart like that.

All this makes it very hard for us to measure the success of attempts to ensure gender equality within society.  If in two years time I too decide to halt my fast-tracked career to focus on a marriage and children, has society failed me?  Has something been inherently wrong in my education or upbringing to produce a university graduate and comfortably salaried executive that would rather spend time with dribbling kids and toddler groups – the very situation generations of women before seemingly fought to avoid?  Or am I, in some ways, perhaps luckier than my hubby-to-be because it is still more acceptable for me to have a 10 year career break on my CV than for him?

In spreading of the message of gender equality over the last 100 years have we confused what women have been fighting for?  Mis-associating feminism with an attempt to replicate a male stereotypical lifestyle, rather than opening the options and choices available to women?

And perhaps the simplest question of all; How can we measure the sucess of feminism when the goal is to provide for choice, rather than a prescribed path of the perceived perfect female lifestyle?  Without statistics showing that 50% of all FTSE 100 company board members are female, how will we know when we have reached our goal?

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