Gender Symmetry is an important feminist concept that they propose would bring gender justice to both genders. In this article, we will understand this theory and how it applies to our daily life.
In her Theory on ‘Basic Income, Gender Justice and the Costs of Gender‐Symmetrical Lifestyles’, published in Basic Income Studies, Anca Gheaus of Université Catholique de Lille & University of Oxford, argued that a society is gender-just when the cost of engaging in a gender-symmetry lifestyle (in both domestic and public spheres) is equal to or less than that of engaging in a gender-asymmetry lifestyle.
In her paper, she argued that women and femininity are culturally devalued that is deeply rooted in individual psychology.
To elaborate on this, Anca Gheaus, explained gender-symmetry in this way, “A gender‐symmetrical lifestyle is one in which women and men engage equally in paid work and family life, which includes unpaid care work for dependents”.
In this aspect, she defined ‘work’ as market and non-market activities that produce goods and services (that are ‘paid’) and defined ‘family’ as long-term dependency related to one’s personal life and care (that is ‘unpaid’). A gender-symmetrical lifestyle would thus consider one’s ‘work and family’ life together and minimize the cost of one’s living rather than in ‘work only’ or ‘family only’ situations. In this aspect, she referred to feminists like ‘Bubeck and Kittay, (A Feminist Approach to Citizenship, 1999), argued that caregiving should be considered as a universal duty of citizenship.
In her argument, Anca Gheaus argued that contrary to the popular feminist theory that a redistributive scheme like ensuring a Basic Income (BI) for women will actually lead to unintended consequences like ‘worsening women’s access to the market’, ‘confinement of some women to domesticity to a higher degree than it is currently the case in many western countries’ and ultimately ‘perpetuation of unjust gender norms and expectations’.
She referred to a study done by Lister, (“Dilemmas in Engendering Citizenship,”1995); and Robeyns, (“Will a Basic Income Do Justice to Women?”, 2001) in support of her arguments.
In this aspect, she clarified that this ‘gender just’ norms may not satisfy what a woman actually wants. She argued that a woman’s current preferences are created from an unjust society that was historic and systematic and is not necessarily what gender justice requires. So, in a way, women’s personal choices were overridden in her theory of justice through gender-symmetrical lifestyle.
In this regard, Anca mentioned about arguments of Kesenne, (Basic Income and Female Labour Supply: An Empirical Analysis, 1990); Robeyns, (Will a Basic Income Do Justice to Women,2001); Bergmann (A Swedish‐Style Welfare State or Basic Income: Which Should Have Priority, 2004) that BI will actually lead to a drop in female labour. Differing income will affect different groups of women differently and will lead to a drop in women’s bargaining power within the household, decreased self-esteem and a loss of social capital. She also mentioned Catherine Hakim (Work‐lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century: Preference Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000) and said, a BI would increase polarization between home-centred and work-centred women.
Catherine Hakim, in her year 2000 study (BI Based Social Welfare for Women), showed that an assured basic income will lead women to become more polarized (either home-centred or work-centred) and fewer women will try to adapt to a “combine home and career”. Since fewer women will choose a balance between home and career, BI will increase the cost of gender-symmetry lifestyle for both men and women.
Catherine Hakim, in a 2004 study titled, “Key Issues in Womenʹs Work: Female Heterogeneity and the Polarisation of Women’s Employment”, showed that a fifth of UK’s female population had a constant preference of being homemakers. Anca Gheaus, however, argued that many preferences are adaptive and hence it is not important that for social justice, we need to take care of those adaptive preferences. She argued that these preferences were historically shaped under unjust practices. Also, she argued that these preferences of women were not independent and were centred around men’s preferences. Since men wanted to be more outbound, women preferred to be inbound as they worked and formed families together. If men wanted to take equal part in care work, women too would have chosen to go outbound.
Like other feminist theories, this theory also says that devaluation of the care work is the root of this unjust social conditions. In other words, this theory tries to attach a value to a mother’s love and care.
Privatization of Care
Many feminists say that a Basic Income to women will lead to more privatization of care work. In the words of Anca Gheaus, ‘women will be expected to shoulder the burden of private care’. In that scenario, she says, women will be more domesticized and will lose skills and hence reentry in the market. She feared that socially and culturally this would lead to more domestic violence and gender stereotypes. So, in her views, socially and culturally all ‘blame’ for bad care will continue to go to women and hence their return to a gender symmetrical lifestyle will be increasingly difficult.
This economic factor, she says, will lead to change the social and psychological dimensions and women or everything ‘feminine’ will lose respect. In her views, when a basic income (BI) is ensured to women, many women will drop out of the labour market and will choose a domestic career, as a result, more parents will choose to take ahead the career choices of their boys and hence gender asymmetry will increase.
Universal Care Giver
To ensure gender justice, sociologists like Horchschild, proposed to encourage men to work in a ‘second-shift’ to take up the caregiver roles so that women can be liberated (?) and work in the outside world for money. Nancy Fraser (After the Family Wage, 1994) termed this as ‘double-earner-double-career-model’ or ‘the universal caregiver model’.
Gender Symmetry or Universal Bondage?
So, we understand that when feminists want to promote a gender symmetrical lifestyle (i.e. a society where both men and women do the same set of jobs) their main intention is to engage both genders in all kinds of work. One clear agenda behind this seems to get more people in the workforce. However, as I explained in previous articles, adding to the skilled workforce will not lead to justice for individuals as this increased supply of skilled labour will automatically lead to decrease in wages (because of economic reasons) and hence all individuals will be worse off. The only benefit will be to the corporates because they will get a supply of cheaper labour force and will be able to reduce their costs and increase profits.
So, we understand that in a way these socialist theories are made to favour the capitalists and turn every human being as a slave to the capitalist world. As we find in India today, the liberalized economy with huge foreign direct investment (FDI) in all sectors, might have increased our pay packets initially (in early 2000) but over a period of time, the wages have only decreased with an exorbitant increase in our cost of living and inflation. There was a time when a single person’s income used to be sufficient to feed a whole family of 20 people (e.g. in Hindu Undivided Family). However, today in the liberal economy it’s not enough to feed even two people and thus all urban families need dual income. Hence, we see a big gap in utopian feminist theory that a gender symmetrical lifestyle reduces the cost of our overall living.
Is Paternal Leave Enough?
Recently, we came to know that in India, the Govt. is trying to bring a special ordinance to create a provision for paternal leaves. This may seem to be a progressive decision keeping the modern urban lifestyle in view, however, when we consider that a child needs parental supervision and love and care till his college days this step seems impractical. Unless of course, we try to employ nannies. However, as explained here employing a nanny would mean bringing more gender asymmetry.
Gender Justice and Broken Families
If we look at the traditional system of large families (HUF) we will find that child raising was a community responsibility already. The larger family members used to take care of all children of the family. That used to divide the work equitably. But that situation is not possible under the broken and nuclear family system. In this system, that is again created by feminism and irresponsible sense of ‘rights’ over ‘responsibilities’, led to a situation where feminists again need to talk about the community care for children.
Why Community Care for Children Won’t Work
To understand, why community care (by people other than family members) for children won’t work, we need to understand what happened in Israeli Kibbutz society.
So, we understand that a gender-symmetrical lifestyle may sound great in theory but in practice, a division of labour improves our quality of life with all children equally taken care of.
[This article is a part of Modern Feminism Series.
All articles in this series can be found – here ]