In this month’s column, we focus our thought experiment on gender politics in the workplace and imagine how women might fare in their careers in a world unburdened by sex and sexuality.
Evil mega-corporations, shadow agencies, and powerful companies. Speculative worlds aren’t complete without organizations who secretly control characters like pawns on a chess board. Writers may be tempted to place a woman as the ruthless boss of their imaginary conglomerates and call their worldbuilding feminist, but leadership is only one aspect of gender dynamics in the workplace. In order to create matriarchal or egalitarian worlds, writers should strive to understand how the inherent sexism and sexual control of patriarchal influence affects the way women navigate careers outside the home in our world so they can better keep it out of theirs.
The male-dictated labor market has long determined the types of careers women have been allowed to pursue. Historically, women who worked outside the home were funneled into “female” jobs such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial work, all of which tend to offer low compensation and promotion opportunities. Thanks to the feminist movements of the 1960s, women in the United States have managed to pull ahead of men in certain professions, but on a worldwide scale, women continue to fall behind when it comes to working outside the home.
Progress remains limited, even in the U.S., when it comes to more prestigious professions. Representation across the board in medical-based careers—from practicing physicians to medical school deans—remains dishearteningly low despite the record number of women who have entered medical school in the last twenty years. In the legal and judiciary fields, women constitute thirty percent of judges in state courts and only 1 in 3 lawyers across the United States. That’s a significant increase from the 1960s, when men outnumbered women in the legal profession 25 to 1. This progress still brings no parity in either representation or pay.
The figures are no better when it comes to high-paying jobs in the construction industry, where women make up less than 5% of skilled laborers. Ostensibly, women may seem less interested in blue-collar work but factors such as poor recruitment and marketing, lack of support, and a cultivated “boys club” environment that is often hostile to women are more likely to blame. All of these factors can be tied to traditional (read: sexist) perceptions that women don’t belong in the workplace, much less in a hardhat.
Women who manage to succeed often face sexual harassment and lower wages. The number of women who have experienced sexual harassment on the job ranges from a disturbing 1 in 4 employees to an appalling 4 out of 5. No amount of pay would make such treatment worth it, but women often don’t even enjoy that advantage. In the United States, women on average make just over 80 cents for each dollar a man makes. The gap widens based on race and ethnicity. When we zoom out to consider the pay gap on a global scale, that number drops from 80 percent to 63 percent. And the number of countries where women earn higher or at least equal pay for similar jobs? Zero.
Despite these obstacles, women occasionally make it to the top of the ladder to knock at that glass ceiling, but not nearly as often as men. In fact, among the S&P 500 companies, women hold just over 5% of the CEO positions.
All of the issues women face in the workplace tend to have a common cause: patriarchal views that are sexist (and by extension, sexually-controlling) in nature. Women—who predominantly serve as primary caregivers for their families—suffer from lack of maternity leave protections, childcare support, and single parent support. This in turn adversely affects job variety and availability, career advancement, and perceptions of ambition and dedication to the job. Add to the mix increasingly restricted options for birth control and societal shame for pursuing career over motherhood, and women’s worth and laudable achievements are effectively pigeonholed to their sexual roles as child bearers.
So now, let’s remove sexuality and sexual reproduction from human history. Does this change the way women work outside the home? In our thought experiment, women still bear children so maternity leave and childcare will still be required, but a world neutered of its traditionally male-defined gender roles might develop a more even distribution of caregiving duties.
Men, once stripped of their hormonal drive to dominate and conquer, would be less likely to define childcare as an “effeminate duty” and may embrace nurturing as a parental—not an exclusively feminine—quality. Also, a sexless world is one in which procreation is deliberate and purposeful. Not only would women have greater control over if and when to have children (hallelujah!), but men would be more emotionally and mentally invested in family planning and child rearing when it’s intentional. Increased ownership on the father’s part means a more equitable share of caregiving responsibilities at home and more opportunity for mothers to succeed in the workforce.
Additionally, masculine desire for competition and victory—something that has moved from ancient battlefield to modern board room—should mellow enough in the absence of sexual aggression to allow women to not only participate but excel in their careers. People recruited into blue-collar jobs would be selected for actual skills and able-bodiedness rather than gender and willingness to laugh at crude jokes. Ah yes, and sexual harassment and sexism disappear, making construction sites and online business chat rooms welcoming to all. Glass ceilings would not be shattered because a sex-free world probably never contains them. Promotion and advancement would be based on skill, dedication to the job, and past success, factors currently tainted by male-biased perceptions.
So give your female characters both carpools and construction vests while you vex your male characters with deadlines and diaper duties. In egalitarian or matriarchal worlds, everyone on the gender spectrum should have true equal opportunity not only to work at and excel in your evil mega-corporations but also to be the ruthless boss.