There is admirable work being done to encourage more women to study the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects and to pave the way for them to have careers in science and technology. These efforts are laudable and vitally important as the world most certainly needs to have greater diversity within all spheres and women themselves need the utmost support to pursue careers in industries that have predominantly been the preserve of men.
But I wonder if we are also missing another important aspect of how we look at gender and the economy.
We hear a lot that women still earn significantly less than men and I wonder whether this is also a symptom of the fact that women tend to be drawn to professions, or occupations, that currently pay little. The arts, charitable work, teaching and nursing, caring for others – professions that have traditionally attracted more women - continue to be undervalued and, therefore, significantly underpaid. We have come to accept that this is simply the way the world works, that this type of work has little economic value. We do not adequately challenge what it is that truly constitutes value, despite the oft-quoted fact that such work has a significant impact on the economy yet falls under the radar of productivity due to the fact that it is either unpaid or poorly paid. To me, this is also at the detriment of how we encourage the skills and proclivities of women.
I work in the not-profit sector and started my own organization using theatre for social change. There is and always has been much debate about the funds charitable organisations receive relative to the work they do and the contribution they make to the economy. Typically, there is an open acceptance that non-profit work should not be paid as well as for-profit work and an unquestioning assumption that the arts in particular are an unnecessary luxury in today’s modern world. But I can’t help wonder whether this thinking is a result of the fact that it is women who have traditionally dominated this sector.
In the old days, charitable work was the preserve of women with wealthy husbands, who had little else to do but help the poor and needy as a way to give meaning to their lives. As such, work in this sector has come to be synonomous with volunteering and, still today, the insinuation that such work is somehow less important and thus should not be highly paid continues.
Women, however, continue to be drawn to working in this sector and yet there has been no radical questioning about how we need to value this type of work. It seems that, in the discussion of encouraging more women to work in non-traditional sectors for them, such as science and technology, we also need a radical reassessment of what it is that constitutes value and take a broader view on encouraging both men and women to express themselves in all aspects of human creativity and productive work.
Fareed Zakaria recently wrote an article, calling for caution about the enthusiasm for STEM in the education system in America, at the expense of a broader education that encompasses the arts and humanities. He points out that America has built it’s success on innovation and creativity and that, as such, we ignore those ‘softer skills’ at our peril. What is it going to take for politicians and economists to wake up to what truly constitutes value for our economy?
My brand of feminism has always believed that, whilst women should be enabled to pursue whatever it is in their hearts to do, whether that’s running for government, setting up a charity, developing patents in the scientific field, caring for others, running their own technology company, raising children or educating future generations, feminism should also include the capacity to ensure that ‘the feminine’ takes equal place to notions of the masculine in our world too. It should never undermine or devalue the feminine qualities and skills that are so vital to a balanced world.
We thus then have a new challenge – to ensure that those professions that we have come to associate with women are raised up in equal measure at the same time as we encourage women to join traditionally ‘male’ professions. This includes a radical reassessment of how we reward and value work in these professions too. It is time to stop ignoring the elephant in the room of what it is that constitutes value in our world and challenge our thinking on true equality.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.