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“The Trouble with Working Women” and the definition of success

A recent BBC programme, ‘The Trouble with Working Women,’ aimed to explore the growing pay gap, managing motherhood and work (I say motherhood, as fathers were barely mentioned) and the problems women encounter in the workplace.

This project, two hours in total, unfortunately offered little insight. The thing that really struck me as a gaping omission and had me yelling at the T.V. was this: We were asked “Why can’t a woman succeed like a man?” It did not occur to anyone to ask “Why should a woman have to succeed ‘like a man’?”

The subject was touched upon, and it was suggested women are ‘less successful’ because of the ‘type of work’ they ‘choose’ to do. Lots of quote marks there; ‘type of work’ usually means a traditionally ‘female’ type of job, which tends to be lower paid than a traditionally ‘male’ job. The low value we place on ‘female’ jobs and skills was touched upon but never explored. The idea that this is due to the inherent sexism in society was not mentioned.

It was likewise with ‘choose’ to do. Why do women ‘choose’ these jobs? Is it not because we are socialised from birth to reinforce gender stereotypes? Or do women who go into ‘male’ jobs face the fact of having to be twice as good all the time to be viewed even as semi-competent? One woman on the programme mentioned professional failure – if you fail it’s seen as you failing because you’re a woman, yet when a man fails it’s an issue of ‘well, shit happens’.

The programme offered a supposed solution: get girls to choose to go into ‘successful’ (i.e. male) careers. It seemed that the road to success would be insured simply by no longer ‘choosing’ to do low paid ‘female’ jobs and go after high paid, higher-status ‘male’ jobs. Not once was it asked “Why can’t the world value ‘female’ skills?” Instead, we were told testosterone helped in the boardroom, we had to become driven and gutsy, and adopt typically male patterns of speech and behaviour to get our voices heard.

I can only recall the word ‘sexism’ being mentioned once, by Harriet Harman, the minister behind the new Equality Bill. It was a breath of fresh air. Instead of coming up with some pyscho-babble or ‘biological’ evidence as to why women don’t succeed, Harman spoke some rare words of sense and truth for a politician: women are behind men in the workplace because of institutionalised sexism.

Then came babies. The programme mentioned the discrimination faced by women of childbearing age (which are apparently not just a ‘risk’ while pregnant, but throughout their entire reproductive lives). Paternity leave and pay was touched upon for roughly a nanosecond. No one asked why it is women are expected to sacrifice their career aspirations for children, while men can have as many children as they like and not suffer at the workplace. Men do not get pregnant, but why is it that the woman should be obliged to take on the lion’s share of childcare? The programme featured a touching section following a house-husband, yet he was portrayed from the ‘ohh isn’t this unusual?’ angle without asking the questions about WHY it is so unusual and why child-rearing is seen as a task ‘below’ most men.

All in all, I was very disappointed with the message of “The Trouble With Working Women”; it seemed like another get out of jail free card for the patriarchy. The sad truth is that success in this society equals male. Race and class were never mentioned on the programme either; I suppose it was outside its ‘scope,’ yet feel these issues intersect so much that one cannot look at them in a vacuum.

We need to ask why men ‘succeed’ as much as why women ‘fail’, and we need to address privilege in it’s many forms. We need to re-define our concept of success so it is not so heavily skewed towards to the rich, white male ideal. Success is meaningless until we can have it on our terms.


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2 thoughts on ““The Trouble with Working Women” and the definition of success

  1. Good post. I agree, male norms should not become de facto human norms, nor should they necessarily have to remain male norms.

    However, I am concerned with the practical implications of some of the post’s suggestions.

    “Not once was it asked “Why can’t the world value ‘female’ skills?””

    This seems like a fairly fruitless inquiry. In a capitalistic or regulated capitalstic economy, value is economic. Skills that will be exercised free of charge due to emotional/caretaking motivations are not economically valued. There’s no “why” to it, it’s just the way our economy works, and any rigorous argument will either accept that as a given or demonstrate why another economy would work better or how this one could be tweaked to work better.

    “It did not occur to anyone to ask “Why should a woman have to succeed ‘like a man’?””

    Is that really the right question, though? Nobody should HAVE to do anything, of course. If you’re asking “SHOULD a woman aspire to the conventional model of success,” then the answer seems to be: “YES if she wants economic security in the current, as opposed to utopian, world, and NO if that’s not an important factor for her.”

  2. This documentary actually end with the female presented telling us that she thinks that women are usually better than men at work. An amazingly sexist comment that is almost identical and opposite to what the boxing guy told her which led her to hold her head in her hands.

    We should strive for equality, sexism should be denounced from where-ever it comes from and who-ever it is aimed at. Allowing women to openly express such sexist view should be seen in the same light as when men are sexist or the whole thing is meaningless.

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