I subscribe to Twitter feeds for all four presidential candidates who are on enough ballots to mathematically be able to accumulate enough electoral votes to win the election. Twitter being what it is, that means I also get a zillion retweets supporting any one of those given candidates. Such a retweet popped up this morning from @Women_For_Obama: “PBO established the White House Council on Women & Girls, to ensure all cabinet-level agencies know how their work impacts women & families.”
My first instinct was, “Well, it’s about darn time.” My second instinct was to wonder about what the other three candidates I’m following would think about the Council. My third instinct was to wonder what I really thought when looking more closely at the situation.
Let’s start with the mission of the Council: “to ensure all cabinet-level agencies know how their work impacts women & families.” First off, this implies there are cabinet-level agencies (presumably most if not all of them) who don’t have what would seem to be basic knowledge about the lives of a strong majority of U.S. citizens. Another implication is that most people staffing these agencies, at least at the highest levels, are probably men. A third implication is that most of these presumed men either don’t have families or aren’t in particularly close touch with them. In other words, the mission of the Council ends up either promoting or reflecting, or both, the stereotype that family is women’s work and work is men’s work.
This tweet comes in the context of an article I recently read by Pasi Sahlberg, a Finn devoted to the cause of promoting understanding of how and why his country’s educational system has come to be seen as a model for success. He states that gender equality is a necessary pre-condition, noting that Finland not only gave women the right to vote in the early 20th century (14 years before the U.S.) but also has worked to ensure true equality. Currently, “43% of the members of Parliament and 47% of the government ministers are female in Finland” whereas a mere 17% of Congress is female in the U.S., a level below average for the world as a whole. (Sahlberg). This level of gender equality has helped bring about four fundamental policies Mr. Sahlberg considers essential to the success of the Finnish education system. One is governmental support for women and children in the form of free health care and a 12-month fully paid parental leave. Parents are also guaranteed the right to return to their jobs if they take a leave of up to three years. The second is a comprehensive system of early childhood development and care. The third is a strong focus on supporting children holistically in the schools. A fourth is special education and remedial assistance and support offered readily and as early as possible when needed. With all this, Sahlberg doesn’t need to mention another critical factor, that the child poverty rate in Finland is only about 2.5% while ours is nearly ten times that level.
Sahlberg suggests that the presence of women in Finnish government has helped create such a strong and child-friendly system. I was struck that once again, the underlying assumption was that children and family are much more part of a woman’s world than a man’s. I can’t help but wonder how we move away from these kinds of gender-based assumptions, especially as they are rooted in the predominant binary view that oversimplifies the concept of gender in the first place. And I can’t help but wonder how, with some of the same errors in assumptions you see in the U.S., Finland has nonetheless achieved a level of equity far beyond our own.
Last week, a Humanities 7 student shared her notes with me on research into media perspective on gender. She began by researching the word “stereotype” and pushing well beyond a surface definition, in the process learning that “automatic and implicit stereotyping is what everyone does all the time without realizing.” (Annalie) Somehow, I think, Finland has been better able to move further past subconscious stereotyping than the U.S., whether by raising awareness of its existence, building knowledge that allows people (consciously or subconsciously) to process those initial impressions and move past them, and/or creating an expectation of gender equity that both fights and co-exists with other assumptions about gender. Once again, there is a lesson we can learn. We will know we have done our job when there is no longer any need for a White House Council for Women & Girls. And when that happens, it will benefit not just women and children, not just our education system, but more profoundly every single citizen and every aspect of our society.