- Riane Eisler is a renowned social systems scientist, cultural historian, and attorney.
- As a refugee of the Holocaust, she was inspired to study why certain groups establish power over others.
- Eisler writes on the issue of the “gendered system of values” she sees in most cultures.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
I was a child refugee from the Holocaust. This impacted me greatly, pushing me to investigate the root causes of forces driving one group to seek and establish power over other groups.
Today, I’m a social systems scientist and cultural historian. I’ve spent the last four decades exploring social structures and values in relation to the major issues of our times. One of those issues is the unequal treatment of men and women in all realms of life, including the wage gap that persists between them.
From soccer fields to the C-suite, the rallying cry for equal pay for equal work by women is growing louder. While it is certainly necessary to focus on pay equity, let’s not let those efforts prevent us from reexamining – and working to change – the broader social context that needs fixing.
Most cultures today, including American, are rooted in a gendered system of values. Besides the unnecessary and harmful fact of cutting behaviors and traits into two separate halves – the things women do, and the things men do – our old gender stereotypes and the devaluation of the “feminine” have biased us against anything stereotypically associated with women.
Cooperation, love, kindness and the work they give rise to, including caring for people starting in childhood – these are among the behaviors stereotypically associated with women. They are considered “soft,” have been labeled “women’s work,” and given little or no economic value. And traits that align with “soft” behaviors have also been devalued – even scorned.
Terrence Real, co-director of the Harvard University Gender Research Project, noted that young boys and girls in the US start off by being equally emotional, expressive, and dependent. But whereas girls are generally allowed to remain emotionally expressive, boys are subtly, and at times dramatically, socialized away from expressing their “soft” emotions and dependency needs. They are taught that “real” men despise and suppress in themselves anything that’s “soft” or feminine, and to despise other men who express that aspect of their humanity.
In other words, our gendered system doesn’t just create inequalities between men and women: it attaches unequal value to the very concepts and definitions of “masculine” and feminine.” No wonder female soccer players are perceived as less valuable than their male peers and that the work of caring for children is not economically valued.
This dynamic is especially prevalent in what I call “domination” systems such as the one we are currently battling. In domination systems, family, economic, and social structures support rigid top-down rankings: man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, etc. Extreme examples include despotic regimes such as ISIS or the Taliban, North Korea under Kim Jong-un, and abusive parental behavior in individual families. Fear, force, and insecurity are important factors in holding domination-oriented social systems together. I discuss this in more depth in the new book I have written with anthropologist Douglas P. Fry, “Nurturing Our Humanity.”
To varying degrees, we still find a domination orientation in our workplaces – athletic fields included. Top-down rankings, fear of missteps that might lead to job loss or the destruction of a career and insecurity about myriad issues large and small abound.
Women must constantly ask themselves: Do I dare call my boss out on a flawed analysis he presented that will shape strategic planning for years to come? Is it okay for me to express my thoughts in a meeting? Will my colleagues resent me for leaving earlier than they do each day to pick up my baby from daycare – and will this cause me to lose opportunities, responsibilities, status and pay?
The ‘partnership system’
In contrast, relations in what I call a “partnership system” – beginning with gender and childhood – are based on mutual respect, accountability, and equity. Importantly, activities such as caring, caregiving, and nonviolence are not considered inferior or unproductive. We see the positive impact of partnership principles like equality, care, compassion, mutual respect, and accountability in European nations such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway, where men and women are partners in both the family and national leadership and a generally high standard of living, low crime rates, and high happiness scores prevail.
If we’re to meet the growing calls for equal pay, we must call for a mindset shift – one that leaves behind old thinking in which anything associated with gender is viewed as “just” women’s issues, and marginalized or ignored. We must recognize that stereotypically “feminine” attributes are inherent in all people – male and female – and that these traits have immense value to society. At the same time, there’s also an immense cost for scorning or devaluing these attributes, for men as well as for women.
On the individual level, Dr. Real found that boys suffer from the requirement that they disassociate themselves from soft emotions … For boys, he writes, “the development of their own sense of masculinity is not, as in most other forms of identity development, a steady movement toward something valued, as much as a repulsion from something devalued. Masculine identity development turns out to be not a process of development at all, but rather a process of elimination.”
On the societal level, the domination-oriented systems we have inherited, founded upon stereotypical “masculine” attributes including domination, toughness, and a proclivity toward aggression, generate and exacerbate the biggest problems humanity faces today: the destruction of our natural environment, poverty, violence, war …
When we recognize that stereotypically “feminine” attributes are inherent in all people, male and female, we begin to move toward an enduring equality between men and women in the workplace. We also begin to shift to a system in which “productive” work is redefined to include caring for and educating people, and the significant economic value of these activities is acknowledged – ultimately changing how we measure economic health.
These changes are needed for a day-to-day reality in which both boardrooms and nurseries are filled with equal numbers of women and men compensated equally, human value is seen as just that, and the work of caring for children, the elderly, and the sick, now still mostly done by women for free in households and poverty wages in the market, is justly rewarded.
Joining together we can leave the gendered system of values that continues to cause so much misery behind – making our world better for all.
This article was originally published on Insider October 4, 2019.