Equality orientation

Women's Work in East to West
May 10, 1996

Too much theorising about women's position takes place on the basis of too little data; and most theoretical and empirical studies reflect an understandable, but limiting Eurocentrism. This book is the outcome of an unlikely collaboration between researchers in Aberdeen and Beijing. In it the authors posit a series of questions about the impact of the logic of industrialism on gender, and thus hope to illuminate one of the central issues of gender studies - why the separation of private and public spheres seems so ineluctably tied to the social differentiation of femininity and masculinity.

Their answer begins with evidence of considerable diversity in the articulation of the two spheres and gender ideologies and practices in East and West.

To substantiate this thesis, the authors draw on data relating primarily to women with small children, collected in large-scale surveys in Japan, China, Britain and North America.

Both the organisation and ethos of economic life and the functions of the family show marked differences between East and West. China and Japan are, of course, not variations on the same theme. For example, the mean gender difference in labour force participation rates is more than five times higher in Japan than in China (Britain and North America lie in between).

Some of the most fascinating sections of the book concern work on the family in China which remained largely inscrutable until the opening up of China allowed sociology to regain its status as a politically correct activity.

In China, paid work in the public sphere forms much more of a core identity for both sexes than in Japan, and most notably, part-time work did not evolve as the duplicitous panacea for the ills of "the feminine mystique" which it did in the West.

Chinese men also appear to be more domestically inclined than other men - though here one would like to see the spotlight of some qualitative work shone on the quantitative data.

Japan seems like a fairly difficult place to be a woman, with paid work dominated by patriarchal rules and men contributing very little labour in the home.

The reader is tempted to conclude that none of the four societies has solved the problem of how to combine production and reproduction without exploitation, but the answer is that they have all developed different strategies, most of which could not really be deemed "solutions". The researchers are less interested in the human side of this than in the light their analysis throws on the "convergence" thesis, which depressingly predicts that as societies industrialise they (if not the sexes) will necessarily become more alike.

The book does conclude that the relative egalitarianism of China is threatened by economic change. It does underline the plausibility of the idea that Japan may manage to preserve gender role segregation along with the profit motive.

But, tantalisingly, we are left to speculate on what, if there is convergence, this will mean in gender terms. More difference, and more dissatisfaction, at least in some quarters? Or will the economic pressure on women to leave the home spur a renewed drive to equality? What is equality anyway?

Ann Oakley is director, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

Women's Work in East to West: The Dual Burden of Employment and Family Life

Author - Norman Stockman, Norman Bonney and Sheng Xuewen
ISBN - 1 85728 307 4 and 308 2
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 232

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