Kitchen sink bigotry still runs deep

Related Topics
WHY DO women earn less than men? Why are there fewer women than men at the top of most professions? The answer, according to a new book, is not discrimination at work, nor even outdated working practices, it is biology, pure and simple. According to Kingsley Browne, professor of law at Wayne State University, Michigan, attempts by governments to remedy the earnings gap, or to tackle the "glass ceiling" which keeps women out of top jobs, are pointless. Most women, he claims, do badly at work because our temperament isn't suited to it.

Sounds familiar? Of course it is. Browne's book - Divided Labours. An Evolutionary View of Women at Work - is published in Britain later this month, but there is nothing new about his views. "Many of the greatest human achievements have been possible only through the kind of single- minded devotion and willingness to take risks that men disproportionately display," he suggests. While his explanation is "scientific", his claims about the differences between men and woman are an uncanny echo of the Rev Thomas Gisborne, addressing the same subject in a book published in 1797.

Law, politics and commercial enterprises, according to Gisborne, "demand the efforts of a mind endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intense and continued application, in a degree in which they are not requisite for the discharge of the customary offices of female duty". Male minds, in other words, so there was no point in trying to improve women's performance through education. Gisborne lived, as we do, in a period of fin-de-siecle gender anxiety and was an early exponent of what became known in the Victorian period as the doctrine of "separate spheres".

This subject inspired hundreds of tracts in the 19th century and I sometimes wonder whether today's neo-Darwinians, enthusiastically arguing the case that biology is destiny, realise how closely their arguments mimic those of the Victorian clerics whom Darwin himself did so much to challenge. I also wonder whether people such as Kingsley Browne are interested in what millions of women really want, as opposed to handing down a prescription for working life which favours successful men and employers who are happy to exploit cheap female labour.

At a moment when Opportunity 2000 is predicting that women will soon make up 51 per cent of the workforce in Britain, it seems perverse to tell us we will never feel comfortable at work, rather than looking for ways in which employment practices could be changed to accommodate our needs. Men do this all the time, without calling into question their commitment to work. Last week, when electricians employed on the Jubilee line extension in London mounted a court challenge to the long hours they are expected to put in, no one suggested they were biologically maladapted to the workplace - just that they were fed up with working more than 60 hours a week. If Kingsley Browne is genuinely convinced that equal pay and flexible hours wouldn't help working women get greater job satisfaction, why is he so opposed to making the experiment?

A LESS palatable explanation for women's unhappiness at work is that offices and factories are not always friendly environments for female employees. Last month, a 45-year-old computer operator won her claim for unfair dismissal after an Exeter-based company which makes greeting cards sacked her for wearing "provocative clothing". The tribunal heard she had been described as "mutton dressed as lamb". A series of industrial tribunals involving the police - another began last week - have heard allegations from women officers about taunts from colleagues about their sexuality.

But it would be unduly optimistic to imagine that these occurrences are confined to traditionally male professions. I have just written to the producers of a BBC Radio 4 programme, Room for Improvement, explaining why I am no longer prepared to take part. After recording one of the programmes, I went for a drink with a producer and the presenter, Laurie Taylor. During a conversation about the programme, Taylor mentioned a male guest and remarked: "Of course he thinks you're a lesbian. He knows you don't fancy him and he thinks you're a lesbian."

As it happens, I don't think there's anything wrong with being a lesbian, but I do object to having inappropriate labels stuck on me - and to hearing the word used as the worst insult a man can dream up. Nor was I impressed by Taylor's defence that "men feel a little bit beleaguered" these days, given that I am outnumbered by men on almost every radio or TV programme I appear on. Obviously I gave as good as I got, suggesting to Taylor that he was suffering from - how can I put it in a family newspaper? - the male equivalent of penis envy. But working women can hardly be expected to feel at ease while even a minority of their male colleagues are prepared to behave in such a manner.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions