The system behind sexism

#MeToo has exposed the massive scale and extent of sexist behaviour in society. A British online project, Everyday Sexism, has likewise brought to light hundreds of thousands of examples of day-to-day sexism. There are now so many stories on its website that it has been upgraded to include sections for each country and a comprehensive search function.

The pervasiveness of sexism affects every aspect of women’s lives. A recent survey of young women in Australia found that one-third agreed with the statement “It would be easier to get their dream job if they were male”, a majority believed that their male peers were not pulling their weight when it comes to housework, and almost one-third thought that “Girls should not be out in public places after dark”.

Those who don’t conform to the expectations associated with their assigned gender continue to face discrimination and marginalisation. 

The persistence of sexism, despite important legal victories and decades of campaigning, tells us a lot about how deeply rooted it is in the structures that govern society and shape our lives. Unequal pay and working conditions, privatised reproduction in the family, gender-based violence and powerful gender stereotypes are not just a matter of unenlightened attitudes and certainly not one of biology. They are bound up with the economic prerogatives at the heart of the capitalism system. 

Capitalism and sexism

Capitalism relies on the exploitation of the majority to make profits. CEOs and corporate board members don’t produce the food, power, transport or communication networks that they sell to make money. Workers do, and the less capitalists can pay workers, the more money they make. Capitalists always want to make more money because, if they don’t, they will be forced out of business by their rivals. So bosses are never happy with how hard or cheaply workers work; they always want to increase the pressure.  

Human beings are to the capitalist class first and foremost commodities, or “human resources” as it’s more politely expressed. Finding ways to exploit divisions between them, whether national, racial or along gender lines, can help to create lower paid and therefore cheaper sections of the working class, and it helps head off united action by workers. The resulting gender divide within the working class is an important element of sexism.

But as with any component of production, the bosses are not concerned only with the production process, but also with ensuring a ready supply of “human resources” for future production. The creation, socialisation and training of future workers require a complicated system of social control, in which women are forced, coerced or enticed into playing a particular and unequal part: as wives, mothers, nurturers and carers. 

This subordinate position in relation to working and private life underpins sexist attitudes and the acceptance of gender roles, which further compounds the unequal position and treatment of women.

The gender pay gap

Despite the achievement of formal equal pay in Australia nearly 50 years ago, the latest figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency show that women currently earn on average 15.3 percent less than their male counterparts. 

In full time work the gap is even higher, with men working full time earning nearly $27,000 per year more than women working the same hours. According to these statistics, men who hold a university qualification and have children can expect to earn a total of around $3.3m over their working life, nearly double the $1.8m women in the same category earn on average.

When you multiply these numbers across the workforce, with women making up more than 50 percent of the workforce worldwide, you can see how the gender pay gap provides huge benefits to bosses and the corporations they manage. 

In Australia women make up 46 percent of the total workforce, but 60-80 percent of workers in lower paid occupations – administration, community and personal services, sales, social assistance, education and training. 

While a windfall for the bosses, the gender pay gap has significant social costs for women. It means that more often than not women end up taking time out of work to look after children because it makes economic sense even if both parents would prefer to share child rearing equally. For older women, the combination of lower pay and the experience of being forced out of work for periods of time to raise children means that on average they end up with less than half the amount of superannuation of their male counterparts.

Income inequality also influences whether women are able to leave unhealthy relationships or make other changes to their life circumstances independently of male partners or parents.

The family

The most well-known Marxist work on women and the family is The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In it, Engels used historical and anthropological evidence to challenge the idea that women have always been subordinate to men, and the claim that male-dominated families are a natural part of human existence. He argued that it was only when human society became divided into classes that women’s oppression emerged as a feature of social relations and family structures.

Although much has changed, the family continues to play a critical economic and social role today. To continue to churn out profits, the bosses need families to keep churning out workers. This includes the physical process of having children as well as the enormous amount of unpaid work that is required to raise them. This means women – and men – must be forced or convinced to take on the roles, responsibilities and inequalities inherent to the nuclear family structure. Whatever else they may also be, women are expected to be good wives and mothers and men to be breadwinners. 

As well as children, families are also expected to be responsible for looking after anyone who is not able to work, including the sick and elderly. The capitalist class are loath to spend money caring for unproductive people when it could go to tax cuts for business or subsidising another coalmine. 

The family is also a key mechanism through which children are socialised to accept society’s norms, from the importance of obedience to conforming to gender roles. This prepares people for an unequal, sexist society. 

Gender roles and other stereotypes are then reinforced in childcare centres, schools and the media, all of which builds on what is learnt in the family unit.

Ideas about “traditional family values” from the right of politics, or the implied moral value of “hard working Aussie families” from the centre-left, are so ingrained there is little space to think outside of these structures. In this way, homophobia, transphobia and sexism are all important forms of social control that ensure people’s lives fit in with the needs of the system and break down their confidence to resist the many other constraints capitalism imposes. 

Increasingly, however, families include same sex couples and trans and gender diverse people, despite the best efforts of the right. While the family form is adaptable to change, the ideological and practical pressure on these units to be self-sufficient, produce children and bear the weight of our emotional and physical wellbeing is still the same. Without families to reproduce workers socially – and the enormous amount of unpaid labour primarily women perform within them – billions of dollars would need to spent by corporations or governments on child care, hospitals, food distribution and other services just to keep workers healthy and able to work.

Sexism sells

In its relentless quest to make money by commodifying everything that moves (and much that doesn’t), capitalism also uses sexism and gender stereotypes to sell a massive range of products, from beer to clothes to car insurance. A recent study by Women’s Health Victoria found that the sexualisation and objectification of women in advertising is increasing, despite the emergence of marketing that consciously rejects such practices (often itself just another sales technique). 

This constant barrage of sexist images and ideas leads to a situation in which 40 percent of Australian women aged 15-19 have been found to be extremely or very concerned about their body image, and most think they will be judged primarily on their appearance. 

Sexism diminishes self-esteem and contributes to poorer mental health and disordered eating. A disproportionate focus on appearance also absorbs women’s time, energy and money, meaning they are less able to undertake other pursuits, including resisting oppression. 

The degree of sexism in the advertising industry is so disgusting that many of the ads that fill our daily visual spaces would be deemed sexual harassment in most workplaces. 

And far from society becoming more enlightened in this regard, studies show that advertising aimed at children has become more gender stereotyped. Pink and blue are used more often to show if a product is considered suitable for girls or boys. Girls are given games associated with nurturing and appearance, while boys are offered toys associated with physical activity, dominance and independence. These messages are then reinforced within the home and family, and through discrimination and inequality in the workplace.

Capitalism is full of contradictions

Relations between people in capitalism are so unnatural and perverse that they often create stark contradictions. Sexuality is used to sell commodities, but women are expected to control their sexuality and be monogamous, ultimately to a man who will become her husband and the father of her children. Women are judged on how sexually attractive they are (to men) while at the same time modesty and fidelity are given a high moral value. 

Working class men are sold the idea that they should have all their desires met and then socially punished by attacks on their masculinity when they inevitably fail. For working class mothers, having children can be a symbol of low status but for wealthy women children can be used to accumulate higher status. The social meaning of motherhood and other gender roles is constantly shaped by class position.

These contradictions can expose as a lie the idea that gender roles associated with the nuclear family are natural and timeless. 

How can we resist? 

Standing up to sexist ideas must be at the centre of any socialist organising. Understanding the mechanics of the system that promotes, perpetuates and relies on sexism shows that just being anti-sexist is not enough. There is a wider system of profit making that has an economic stake in division and oppression that must be challenged to win liberation. This system depends not only on sexism, but on a variety of interlocking oppressions. All these need to be challenged and the system overthrown if we want a world without oppression. Anyone who wants seriously to challenge the system owes it to themselves to engage with socialist ideas and become part of the project of reviving a combative revolutionary approach to fighting sexism.