Give a comparative, cross-national account of social policy in the field of gender equality and family policies.
Attempts to rebalance the gender inequality that exists in society have been made for many years, yet the extent to which these have worked is unclear. Various social policies have been implemented by welfare state to protect women against inequality, though different ideas generally exist as to what is acceptable within society. Such ideas have changed considerably over time and women are no longer being discriminated against as they once were, yet gender bias is still prevalent.
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It remains to be seen whether this will ever be completely eradicated as different countries will continue to perceive gender inequality in a different manner. The social policies, relating to gender equality, of two countries will be examined in this study to in order to consider the extent to which these have proven effective in combating discrimination.
An ideology is a set of ideas as to how society should behave and generally forms the basis of economic and political theory. Ideologies have usually been created by those who dominant society and are usually formed as a result of common interests. It cannot be said that ideology is reflective of the whole of society and instead there exists differing views and opinions as to what an ‘ideal’ world is (Eagleton, 1991: 3). However, as expressed by Kania (1988: 1) a large amount of the existing literature in this area that is devoted to Marxist thought highlights the “diversity of opinion, values and policy advocated by persons associated with that label”. Despite these differences, ideology has been considered discriminatory in nature as those who dominate it are often biased. This was recognised by Curra who pointed out that ideology only “serves the interests of one segment of a society more than all other segments” (2000: 6). It therefore seems likely in light of this assertion that one segment of society will benefit from ideology, whilst other segments will not. This is largely reflected in gender equality and family policies as many still consider the so-called nuclear family to be the norm in contemporary society (Sudha, 2000: 184). However, it cannot be said that the nuclear family does actually reflect the majority in society and so the associated ideology could be seen as outmoded (Saggers and Sims, 2009: 173). This study will compare the social policies of France and Germany in the field of gender equality and family policies in order to demonstrate the extent to which gender equality is being attained. The applicability gender equality and family policy has in France and Germany to functionalism and path dependency will also be considered.
Gender Equality and Family Policy
Gender inequality was first brought to the public’s attention in 1970 when the feminist movement highlighted the struggles women were being subjected to as a natural part of their everyday life (Meer 2013: 4). This was followed by the suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, whereby suffragettes pioneered for the right for women to vote (Foghlam Alba, 2012: 1). During this period, certain groups of society viewed males as being the breadwinners, whilst women were considered the homemakers. Because of this conception, a lack of financial support was provided to women by the welfare state as it was believed that women could rely on the income of their husbands (Herring: 2007; p. 262). Women were far less likely to leave their husbands as a result of this, which could be one of the main reasons why there has been a huge increase in the divorce in recent years (Benson, 2013: 1). It was apparent by many that social policy changes were needed to rectify this imbalance and thus provide women with better protection against inequality (United Nations, 2013: 1). Some feminists believed that ideology was the cause of such inequality and that unless all nation states adopt effective gender equality social policies, women will continue to be treated unfavourably in society (George and Wilding: 1985; p. 122). Some feminists argue that unless equality within family structures is addressed, women will never be completely free regardless as to what social policies’ have been implemented by the welfare state (Craven, 2005: 3). This was recognised by Fraser who was of the view that the policies of existing welfare states are based on assumptions about gender that are “increasingly out of phase with many people’s lives and self-understandings” (1994: 591).
It cannot be said that women are being provided with sufficient protection within society, yet gender inequality is still one of the most important principles that is contained in the human rights law of the European Union (EU). The EU continues to make progress in the tackling of gender discrimination, as exemplified by Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, though it cannot be said that all nation states adopt the same approach as the EU. Consequently, unless gender equality is being instilled into the frameworks of all welfare states, gender discrimination will be likely to remain. Regardless of the EU’s gender equality policies, nonetheless, women continue to be treated less favourably than men and as it has been recognised by Radacic; that despite the pronouncements of gender discrimination, inequality of still persists (2008: 841). It cannot be said that EU policy has had much of an effect in establishing complete equality between the genders, though it is questionable whether it ever will (Mill and Okin, 1988: 1). Hence, it has been pointed out that although the EU has paved the way for more equal gender rights in areas such as marriage and employment, inequality persists when it comes to domestic violence, pay and the division of labour (Pascall, 2000: 240). It seems as though the EU has made great attempts towards the attainment of gender equality, yet these have not proven sufficient. Further changes therefore need to be made to ensure that women are not being treated unfavourably to men.
Gender Equality and family policies in West Germany
Social policy in Germany appears largely to reflect ideological principles, in that males are considered breadwinners, whilst females are considered homemakers.The German people are generally of the view that women should not go out to work and that they should instead stay at home to look after the childrenHence, as illustrated by Peters; “Men’s stereotypical role in Germany is one of the income – earning breadwinner, who leaves the house for work in the morning and comes back in the evening” (2001: 93). Although this may be a common belief throughout Germany, it does not provide a true reflection of the gender roles. Women are frequently choosing to work as opposed to staying at home, yet the gender pay gap is also increasing. Germany’s pay gap has thus been widely criticised for being one of the largest in the EU and the EU Commission suggest that this is getting worse (European Commission, 2012: 1). Davis and Robinson believe that much of this gender bias is caused by the policies that are being held by families and societal ideals. does seem to have some validity, and social policies still need to be reformed in Germany so that gender equality is being addressed appropriately. Arguably, if effective policies are implemented in Germany, it is likely that this will cause the policies held by families to also change (Seeleib-Kaiser, 2007: 2).
This alone will not be sufficient to bring about gender equality, and attitudes will also need to change. It has been suggested by Davis and Robinson that women with employed husbands are less likely to be supported than women with unemployed husbands. This is because, husbands in employment are unlikely to be supportive of efforts to reduce gender inequality (1991: 72). This suggests that women are less likely to advance in society if they receive a lack of support from their husbands. This shows how men can impact the achievement of gender equality. The social policies that exist in Germany should therefore be amended so that gender equality can be improved. At present, women do not receive adequate support from the government (Gelb and Palley, 2009: 368), though as noted by the OECD some are of the view that if greater support is provided to women, they will be less likely to have children which will have an overall impact upon the German population (OECD, 2008: 15). Conversely, it was in fact found by the OECD that countries with policies that facilitate female employment are those with the highest fertility rates” (2008: 15). Instead of reducing the population, further support would in fact increase it which is considered integral to economic growth (OECD, 2007: 7). Arguably, the limited support for working mothers in Germany has resulted in women postponing childbearing so that they can instead enter the workforce in order to financially support themselves. This has an effect upon economic growth (WILPF International, 2013: 1), though it has been said that social policy in Germany is a work in progress and that attempts to reinforce childcare is being made (Spiegel, 2012: 1).
Gender Equality and family policies in France
In comparison with Germany, social policy in France does actually appear to reflect the ideas of contemporary society, and is thus more favourable to women. This was identified by Rodgers when it was noted that; “France has a more conscious, clearly defined concept of family policy, which finds expression in statutory and voluntary institutions whose primary or even sole purpose is to promote the welfare of the family” (2009: 113). Statutory benefits in France are also provided, as of right, to both parents. This demonstrates how gender equality is more adequate in France than it is in Germany (Rogers, 2009: 113). This is due to the support women receive in France by the French government and the favourable family policies that exist. Significant support for childcare is also being provided by France and their allowance system is particularly generous (European Union, 2014: 1). The support that is provided to women is thus intended to allow a work-life balance to be achieved. This approach does appear to be working given the high fertility and employments rates of women with children (European Commission, 2014: 1). Hence, it has been argued that the high fertility rates in France is due to France’s consistent family policy and the excellent employment prospects women are said to have (Del Boca, 2008: 2).
Monetary benefits are a key feature of France’s family policy (Cleiss, 2013: 1). This generosity has been considered necessary in supporting women and removing gender inequality in France. Yet not all agree with this approach and it has instead been argued that whilst women in France receive a number of different benefits such as; paid, four-month maternity leaves; tax breaks for having more children; and other family-friendly government subsidies, “their country lags behind many other nations in gender equality” (MNT, 2010: 1). This suggests that although a number of social policies have been established in France that intend to provide greater support to women, not all believe that gender inequality is eradicated and instead argued that outdated societal attitudes regarding women are still prevalent (Girling, 2002: 126). Nevertheless, France’s benefit system does appear to be a lot more generous than Germany’s, which might be suggested leads to greater equality between the sexes. However, it seems as though complete equality is still not being attained. There still appears to be a gender pay gap between men and women in France, and women continue to be treated differently in general (European Commission, 2013: 10). Arguably, it is clear from these findings that social policies may not actually remove the gender inequalities that persist within society and that the attitudes of individuals also need to be changed.
Functionalist and path dependency to gender equality and family policies
Functionalism has been described as a philosophy of mind in that a particular mental state will be dependent on the role it plays on the cognitive system in which it is a part of. In effect, functionalists view the identity of mental states as being determined by its casual relations to sensory stimulations, behaviour and other mental states (Stanford, 2004: 1). Functionalism is clearly prevalent within the approaches that are being employed in both Germany and France since functionalists view gender inequality as a product of traditional ideology within society (Isajiw, 2013: 129). Given that gender inequality is still prevalent within both Germany and France it might be though that social policies cannot change traditional ideology. Pre-existing notions of the ideal family will be likely to remain and individuals will thus conform to the roles that have been provided to them by society. Whilst gender roles have changed substantially in contemporary societies, functionalists believe that traditional arrangements remain in force (Giddens and Griffiths, 2006: 467). This is what appears to be happening in France because although social policy has been advanced, gender inequality still exists as a result of traditional arrangements. Furthermore, whilst social policy in Germany is not as supportive of women as it is in France, the same applies here and traditional arrangements continue to prevail.
Path dependency is a term that is used to describe the idea that history matters and that we are today a product of what has happened in the past (Margolis, 1996: 1). Path dependency is also reflective of gender equality in Germany and France in that past decisions influence future decisions. This is so regardless of whether the circumstances are still relevant (Arthur, 1994: 33). Historical viewpoints are therefore being maintained despite the fact that this no longer provides a true reflection of reality and as put by Skocpol; “the development trends of social modernization may face legacies of path dependent cultural and institutional organisation” (1992: 8). Gender equality is affected by this and improvements to the lives and wellbeing of women is stifled. Alexander and Welzel argue that; “path dependent processes with respect to women’s suffrage policy may affect the potential to increase gender equality in particular societies” (2014: 9). Again, this demonstrates why women continue to be paid less than men in both Germany and France. This results from the historical gender inequality practices because as stated by Bjornskov et al; “because of the path dependence of the unfolding human life, gender inequality in the early eighties might equally affect today’s opportunities, choices and aspiration levels” (2007: 2). This will continue to affect the way women are treated in the future and it is arguable whether discrimination against women will ever be eradicated.
Overall, it has been argued that ideological beliefs will continue to influence the ways women are treated in society, and regardless of the social policies that are implemented by welfare states, gender inequality will continue to persist. This is because the traditional roles of males and females will continue to be prevalent within all aspects of life as women will continue to take on the role of a homemaker, whilst men will continue to take on the role of a breadwinner in certain groups of society. Ideology is largely responsible for these inequalities and women will continue to be treated differently to men as a result. This is evidenced in both Germany and France regardless of the fact that their social policy strategies are different and demonstrates how ideology will continue to dominate contemporary society. Thus, women in Germany are treated far less favourably than the women in France, yet both countries are similar when it comes to gender inequality. An example of this can be seen in relation to the gender pay gaps which are widespread amongst both nation states. Nevertheless, despite the fact that gender inequality is likely to persist regardless of what policies are implemented, it is manifest that improvements can certainly be made. Further support should be provided to women in Germany, whilst the gender pay gap should be reduced in France. This is unlikely to provide complete equality because, as recognised by the functionalist and path dependency models, the traditional arrangement of gender roles will continue influence society.
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