• SETHICS 11.03.2011

    In honour of International Women’s Day, CBC Radio sent a journalist straight into the heart of capitalism to find out how women are doing. The small survey provoked an eloquent, but, I would say, somewhat unsubstantial response. Nevertheless, instead of taking the women he interviewed seriously enough to critically question them, the reporter cheered on his three key witnesses as though they had courageously unearthed the soul of male chauvinism in our society. It was a puff piece of the worst kind because, to my mind, it lacked respect for the people it seemed to want to celebrate.

    Thus, in belated honour of International Women’s Day, I would like to point out what I perceive to be a significant impediment to genuine feminism in Canada: most Canadian media refuse to grant the Canadian feminists the right to be questioned.

    In the CBC report, our concerned and sensitive “journalist” travelled to Toronto’s Bay Street, where he apparently intended to acquire an insightful look at the plight of career women in the great metropolis by interviewing three female employees of capitalism. From their diverse stations in the economy, he received three stories of woe that he could only listen to with compassion.

    The first presenter, a lawyer, explained that she had lost her opportunity to make partner in her firm because she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her family life in order to work the relentless hours required. She therefore hoped in future that the lawyering world would desist in holding back those who wanted to succeed professionally and raise a family at the same time.

    Now it would seem to me that a good journalist would question this argument. Does our heroine’s unfortunate circumstance have anything do with the mistreatment of women, or might it simply be a matter of pragmatism on the part of the law firm? In their highly competitive world, perhaps legal firms promote the people who put in the most work hours, regardless of what such over-working does to their personal lives. If it happens to be that more men than women are willing to let their home lives suffer, then – they might say – so be it. Would they be wrong?

    Such a promote-the-workaholics system may be harmful to the health of our society, and so may be worth looking into, but it would be logistically daunting, and perhaps ethically questionable, to force firms to restrict their employees’ efforts. This doesn’t mean that it is not a cause that should be pursued if the alternative is dire, but, by not asking his subject specifically what she would have her company – or society – do differently, and instead essentially saying, “You go girl!”, the reporter condescendingly cheers for women, but does nothing to further the discussion that could conceivably have influence on their actual circumstance.

    Second, we met a newly-acquired member of the Bay Street economy whose complaint, if it was one, was simply that so far she found it difficult working in a world where she was outnumbered by men. She said nothing in the piece about any patriarchal bias from the majority; apparently, simply the presence of more of one type of person than another should be sufficient to garner our sympathies for the outnumbered. Perhaps it should, but I would think a journalist would ask the minority representative for details of why the imperfect ratio troubled her.

    Personally, I think the complaint deserves significant criticism – everyone is in the minority in some way or another in their life and, unless in that capacity you are experiencing actual bigotry, what’s the problem? (I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, but I would like to know what it is if it’s going to be used as an argument for change.) The reporter apparently felt the answer was self-evident and so did not see any need to ask his honoured victim a follow-up question. In doing so, he neglected his journalistic responsibility.

    By not respecting the Bay Street critic with the same investigation he would impose on, let’s say, a male nurse who might complain about being outnumbered in his profession by women, the reporter cost us either a worthwhile justification for the dissatisfaction (which I, previously not sensitive to this situation, could have learned from), or perhaps he might have found evidence that he was, in fact, dealing with an unreasonable claim. In either case, to ask tough questions is to give the speaker the same consideration the reporter would any other interviewee: it would show that he sees her as responsible for (perhaps even capable of) defending her own argument.

    But, when we laud any group’s claims as righteous no matter what, we avoid investigating their nuances. Surely, sometimes, being an objective journalist means we will find that a complaint is invalid (much, perhaps, to our chagrin), but sometimes it means we will find precisely why it is valid, which in turn may give us a better idea of what can be done about it.

    Finally, the interviewer approached what I found to be the most interesting commentator, a food court business owner. She explained that she was exhausted from playing the role of both full-time entrepreneur and leader of her family life. In the latter, she said she was lucky because she had a wonderful and supportive husband; nevertheless, her dream was to live in a world that assumed an equal domestic balance between the genders.

    This startled me that a husband could be considered wonderful and supportive, and yet not be automatically willing to take on 50% of chores in a dual-income family. Given again the reporter didn’t seem to ask any probing questions, we’ll just have to assume that the business owner was including in her math not only the traditionally female tasks, but also the traditionally male duties, and so I was intrigued by the discrepancy in her final count. While such an imbalance does not readily demonstrate sexism in her business world, it may indeed show that sexism at home makes professional work more fatiguing for women, and thus more difficult to succeed in.

    I find this to be an intriguing complaint with no obvious solution, and so I would have been interested to hear if our third heroine had any suggestions for dealing with it. We can’t really legislate responsibilities within marriages, I wouldn’t think. Committed relationships are replete with jerks of various flavours, so maybe, as individuals, we simply have to take responsibility for our own needs and weed out out candidates until we find someone with the values/qualities we want. Or is the alleged unwillingness of men in general to take on 50% of household chores so prevalent that heterosexual women are left with little choice if they want to be in a relationship?

    Maybe, then, concerned citizens simply need to chip away at the possible problem by encouraging people in general to make sure they’re in a 50-50 union. (Indeed, perhaps our government could give subsidies to advertisers who don’t treat cooking and cleaning – for the approval of their families – to be the first love of women.) Or perhaps there is no problem at all, and our speaker was simply under-valuing the contributions of her husband.

    I’m not sure what the answer is to these questions, but I would have been very interested to hear what the contributors had to say about them.

    Instead, the reporter once again treated the feminist complaint as infallible, and so not worthy of investigation. In this paradigm, women are not diverse collections of traits just like men, capable sometimes of brilliance and occasionally of the opposite; instead, they are compressed into one category wherein all of their opinions are beautiful, by definition. That, to my thinking, is a good way to slow down “the progress of women.” As with any project, if the planner is never subjected to the cruelty of scrutiny, their results will suffer.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 10:25 AM

  • 2 Responses

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    • TomM Says:

      Nicely laid out argument – gets to the heart of journalistic integrity – enjoyed reading it – hope I wasn’t supposed to ask questions though!!!

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, TomM. Good point – the criticism I recommend is for others, not for me! 😉

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