Has the restructuring of gender relations and employment led to a restructuring of European Societies? - Sociology Essay Example

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good - Has the restructuring of gender relations and employment led to a restructuring of European Societies? introduction. “1 This way of thinking has undoubtedly been characteristic of the traditional attitudes of European Societies. Men and women have long been considered different, not only in the obvious biological sense, but also in terms of their roles and their potential as members of society. For centuries, men have been the dominant gender, and have been superior in terms of power, in all aspects of society- politics, business, religion, education and even the family.

Women have been denied access to many of these spheres, one of the most notable being the labour market, and in the cases where they have gained entry their participation has been very much restricted by law, and by social attitudes towards them. As suggested, there has been a long history to gender differences, but equally there has been a long history to women’s attempts to address the differences. The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of many women’s organisations throughout the Western world.


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These campaigned for the abolition of laws which discriminated against them and for the introduction of those which would facilitate their emancipation. ” (Bailey (ed), 1998:77). However, the most effective action thus far, and that which has brought about the most changes have been the actions and policies implemented throughout the late twentieth century. I argue that these structural changes to gender relations have led to the restructuring of European Societies as a whole.

Firstly, I will suggest that this discussion hinges on the concept of gender equality, as this has been the objective central to changes made in many spheres of society. The changing definitional nature of this concept has been an important factor in the evolution of gender relations in European Societies. Secondly, with regard to the labour relations I will outline the emergence of the dual breadwinner problem, and how the various attempts to address this issue have led to a number of structural changes to society.

Using examples from a variety of European countries I will examine some of these changes. Finally, I will deal with non-labour gender relations, including family roles and overall attitudes towards gender. Changes in these areas have also led to the restructuring of societies and have had particular impact on the Welfare State. There exists a variety of theories of gender, which I argue shed some light on the historical account of male-female relations.

The theory of Patriarchy focuses on the fact that throughout history, men have been dominant over women in all societies, and because social structures, values and beliefs tend to be reproduced in society, male dominance has consistently re-emerged as a universal problem that merely defines the human condition. Men are biologically more aggressive and competitive than women, and therefore are more likely to take up dominant roles. A second theory- that of Marxists, is more helpful in accounting for more recent changes in the labour market. This focuses on the theory of the Reserve Army of Labour.

Throughout the twentieth century women were viewed as potential reserves of workers to be used by capitalist firms if necessary during a time of labour crisis, for example during the two World Wars. Mostly they were channelled into the lower end of a ‘dual labour market’ in which there is lower pay, work conditions, entitlements, and security. This theory helps to account for much of the gender segregation and pay differentials, but fails to recognise that many women have been gradually entering, succeeding in and being promoted to the higher levels in organisations and firms.

The Weberian theory focuses on the idea that women are a social group who, like other social groups, compete for the scarce resources of wealth, status and power in the market. In this way we can see that women’s increasing success in society is a reflection of the growing ability of women as a social group to compete against men. What is important to note here is that unlike the other theories, Weber’s theory doesn’t assume that women are doomed to a fate of inferiority, and they are in fact largely in control of their own outcomes.

This way of thinking has emerged in contemporary society, and offers a stark contrast to the previous notion that women’s lives were determined by men. As mentioned previously, the changing definitional nature of the concept of gender equality has played an important role in the restructuring of policy and hence society throughout Europe. Firstly it can be defined as equality of opportunity, in terms of participation in the institutions of the public sphere: education, labour market and politics. This also includes equality of treatment in terms of non-discrimination on the grounds of gender.

Secondly, it can be defined as equality of outcome. In this sense, attempts towards gender equality try to ensure greater socio-economic equality between men and women. Finally, gender equality can be defined as equality of outcome, but not just limited to the public sphere. This focuses on the balance between public and private spheres. These varying definitions have led to a variety of responses at a European level. For example, market based societies such as the UK and Ireland have had a limited perspective towards gender equality that tends to focus on the first definition.

The Scandinavian countries have attempted to address all three of these definitions, and their Welfare States have been transformed in order to achieve this type of equality. In contrast, the Southern European countries have been heavily influenced by the role of the Catholic Church in the State. Women have been encouraged to maintain a domestic role, rather than entering the labour force. As a result, women tend to find little support in social policies, and as will be discussed later, this has had a significant impact on the structure of society.

The twentieth century has undoubtedly seen the breakdown of the male-breadwinner model and the entry of women in greater volumes into the labour force. The precise reasons for this or how indeed this came about is not our concern here, but rather how societies throughout Europe have responded to this. State policies have been most effective in the Nordic countries, where they have attempted to implement social infrastructures such as childcare services, flexible working hours, and measures to prevent the negative effects of career breaks.

Sweden in particular has developed extensive childcare services, and through generous parental-leave schemes both men and women have been given the time to care for children. Parents in the public sector can receive full wage compensation in connection with paid leaves. At a general level, the Scandinavian countries have taken considerable steps away from a traditional male-breadwinner model towards dual breadwinning. The rationale for such policy has been “centred around the protection of biological motherhood. ” (Crompton (ed), 1999:44). This focuses on the cycle of pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding.

Policy was also influence by second-wave feminism, particularly in Norway, which emphasised the right of women to have both children and paid work. In addition, a gender-equality policy concern has been that if the mother’s involvement in the labour market expands, then surely the father’s involvement in the family should also expand. The 1990’s saw the emergence of the domestication of men and the concept of “political fatherhood” and the caring father. The Scandinavian response to dual breadwinning has undoubtedly led to a restructuring of many spheres of society.

While I cannot argue that there has been a complete reversal of roles, it simply cannot be denied that there has been an increased sharing of roles and responsibilities within society. In addition to the Scandinavian model, there has been a variety of different responses throughout the rest of Western Europe, although perhaps not quite so successful in terms of equality. Nonetheless they have produced a number of changes with regard to the structure of society. The Italian model has traditionally been a family economic model.

This is based on the cooperation of men and women in their own family business. This was evident throughout much of the twentieth century, and it involved extensive reliance upon family networks. In the second half of the twentieth century, this model evolved towards a male breadwinner/female carer model. As women have become increasingly interested in entering the work force, they have found little state support in terms of the provision of childcare or other forms of assistance, and this has been largely due to the influence of the Church and its views on female roles, as mentioned earlier.

The result of this has been a marked decline in birth rates, as younger Italian women are now selecting employment in favour of motherhood. In Germany there has been a dominance of the housewife ideal since the early twentieth century. Attitudes towards maternal employment for a long time remained relatively conservative and traditional, centred on a priority of maternal involvement in the daily activities of the child.

However, in more recent years there has been a shifting away from the male breadwinner/female carer model towards a model in which men and women are regarded as equals in the labour market as long as there are no dependent children in the household. During active motherhood, women only participate in part-time work. This was also the trend in the UK, long regarded as a strong male breadwinner state. Married women’s earnings were widely viewed as ‘pocket money’ and there remained a huge emphasis on male obligation to ‘provide.

However, during the 1980’s the Conservative government adopted a policy on housing which brought many married couples into large mortgages. These required significant and continuous income from both sexes. Unlike the Scandinavian model, there remains a refusal of the state to accept the burden of care for children, and so a market for childcare services has emerged and many parents now employ carers for their children. These three examples have outlined just a few of the many changes that European Societies have witnessed since the restructuring of gender relations in the labour market.

Aside from labour relations, changes in attitudes towards female roles in society and in the family have impacted heavily on the structure of society as a whole, although perhaps not in the same way that labour market changes have. While the trends in the labour market have been moving towards greater gender equality, attitudes have remained remarkably old-fashioned, in spite of many structural changes. Studies have shown that there is little evidence to suggest that females have shrugged off the responsibility for household work. This has been described by Hochschild (1990) as the ‘stalled revolution. Although women have “increasingly moved into the previously male-dominated sphere of paid work, there has been no equivalent increase in the amount of unpaid work carried out by men. ” (Crompton (ed), 1999:106). This point suggests that in spite of increasing movement by women into the labour force, they are still largely viewed as the carers, cleaners and general maintainers of the household.

This may appear to suggest that little has changed with regard to gender relations, and there has been no restructuring of European Societies. Indeed, it has been noted that: While they constitute a numeric majority, and despite an abundance of national and international legislation to prevent discrimination against them, women throughout Europe remain a disadvantaged group. ” (Bailey (ed), 1998:77) Hochschild suggests that perhaps activities such as housework are merely symbols of the feminine identity, and that various task responsibilities have been and maybe always will be incorporated into both genders. However, I argue that we cannot lose sight of the positive elements to modern gender relations, even though social attitudes may be proving difficult to alter.

In spite of these persisting traditional views on women, the most important point to note here, and one that was mentioned earlier in the discussion, is that women now have the ability to influence their own outcomes. A brief historical account of the actions taken by women throughout the twentieth century will illustrate the idea that, throughout European Societies, women are now capable of gaining control of their affairs, unlike ever before. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, although women had achieved a higher involvement in paid employment and education, they were still significantly disadvantaged.

The Second Wave of Feminism in the late 1960’s coincided with the emergence of Europe as a new economic and political force. As a result, women were in a position to influence policy processes and outcomes. One example of such policy was the Treaty of Rome, implemented in 1967 in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. The primary objective of this policy was to address women’s rights in employment. It was later followed up by the Equal Opportunities Action Programmes, which recognised that equal pay was only the beginning, but that the ultimate goal was the realisation of full participation in society for women.

The second of these programmes sought to improve the state of women in society, and it promoted the participation of women in the decision-making process in economic and social life. This was addressed through the involvement of women in the media, and also through the presentation of positive images of women. These actions taken by women throughout the second half of the twentieth century are responsible for the current situation in most European Societies, in which women have greater access to education and labour.

Another important result of these actions has been the recognition of women’s needs and rights. Throughout most of Europe, women are free to divorce, and abortion has been legalised in most EU countries. There also exists a wide range of support organisations catering for abused women. In general, women can now enjoy a better quality of life, and can make their own decisions regarding education, employment, and most lifestyle choices, free from discrimination and persecution.

I have argued that gender equality is central to the restructuring of European Societies. Undeniably, the emergence of the dual-breadwinner model across Europe has brought a variety of structural changes, obviously in the work place, but also in the family and household. This new model has also brought major changes to the Welfare State, and this has been most apparent in the Nordic countries, where Welfare spending has been directed towards the provision of childcare services and towards generous leave of absence schemes for mothers.

Even in the countries where female labour participation has not received this level of State support, it must be argued that they too have undergone huge changes. For example, we saw that although encouraged to maintain a domestic role, many young Italian women are taking up positions in the labour force, and because of the lack of financial assistance from the Welfare State they have responded by having fewer children. In contrast, birth rates in Scandinavian countries have remained high.

I have never suggested that all European Societies have experienced the same structural changes, and on the contrary, their restructuring has been somewhat diverse. While I have emphasised the centrality of the concept of gender equality to this discussion of restructuring, I have not ignored the areas in which a level of disparity remains. Social attitudes have proved difficult to change, and although the woman’s role is not exclusively confined to the household, these activities remain largely her responsibility.

In spite of this, I argue that unlike previously, women are not restricted to this type of work. They have gained control of their own lives, and in doing this, they now have the ability to broaden their own set of opportunities. Some attitudes will be impossible to change, and women will always be the child-bearers and perhaps care-givers, but the restructuring of society is evident in the fact that they have the freedom to choose, and the ability to determine their own fate.

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