12 May 2012

Where Are They Really "Gender Blind"?

Many people assume that gender equality is more readily found in large cities and institutions than in smaller ones.  It's not hard to understand why this belief exists:  After all, here in New York I have met young women who have told me they were working the kinds of jobs, and making salaries, that they simply would not have had they remained wherever they were born or raised.  Women in cities like Washington, DC and San Francisco have been saying similar things for decades.

However, it's not commonly noticed that in highly-populated regions, there are still areas of endeavor in which women lag behind men--or are not even playing on the same field.  This is especially true in the ranks of high-level executives in certain industries, and in such areas as politics. While we have seen women such as Hilary Clinton rise to become Secretary of State after representing New York State in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi become Speaker of the House of Representatives after years of representing San Francisco in that body, women have not served as governors of their states or as mayors of the largest cities in their states.  On the other hand, Nikki Haley is currently the Governor of South Carolina, which has about as many people as Brooklyn and Manhattan, or Los Angeles and San Francisco.  And she's a Republican, which would seem to give lie to the notion that Democrats are better at achieving gender equality.

I got to thinking about the things I've mentioned thus far in this post after this, which a friend passed along to me.  It talks about "gender blind" sports programs in small upstate schools.  Being small schools, they have fewer students from which to choose in assembling their teams.  In some schools, there simply aren't enough students to assemble separate men's and women's teams in sports like tennis.  Also, there isn't enough money to field separate teams for boys and girls.

In essence, those schools mirror the situations in small towns and states where women have risen to positions of power.  There aren't as many people from which to choose in those places--and, as a friend from rural West Virginia tells me, the women are often more educated than the men and, in some cases, have better jobs (or have jobs at all when the men don't). I'm also thinking now about something a woman from a rural area in a Latin American country told me: In her town, and others like it, women are, in essence, acting as the priests.  They are doing all of the jobs in the church women "aren't supposed to do" and even ones expressly forbidden by the Church. 

But I think it's not just a lack of qualified men that gives women opportunities in such backwaters.  In one sense, it's easier (though not easy) for a woman to rise in such places because it doesn't take the same amount of money, or access to it or the networks that go along with it.  That could explain why South Carolina has a female governor but neither New York nor California has had one.  Also, the organizations and hierarchies through which women would have to work aren't as big, entrenched or, in some cases, as sclerotic as those in larger cities and states.  It's easier to rise past ten than a thousand men (or any other kind of person).  And, I think, frankly, once a woman rises through such a small network, there is less resistance to another than there is in a larger and more established community.  You might say that, even in the relatively conservative atmosphere of many small towns and states, there's actually less sexism, in practice, than there is in the establishments of large cities and highly-populated states.  

Thus, there may well be more resistance to co-ed sports teams, for example, in large city high schools than in smaller ones in small towns and rural counties.  So places like Utica will have "gender blind" sports teams while New York City high school teams remain segregated.