Katha Pollitt spoke at convocation last Wednesday about women in business and 21st incarnations of feminism as part of the Writers@Grinnell program. Pollitt is a long-time columnist at The Nation and has contributed to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and the New York Times. The S&B’s Kelly Pyzik sat down with Pollitt after her roundtable discussion on Wednesday.
You talked a lot about how there are many women now who think that everything is equal, everything is okay. How do you think women can become more aware of the unfair gender restrictions that still exist in their lives?
I want to say things like “be more observant.” I think there is the world we live in and there are the ideas we have about it. The ideas we have about the world can often prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. If you broaden your sense of what you’re looking at, then the world looks very different. For example, let’s take women in the military. Women in the military, that looks like real progress, well, in a sense—they’re going off and killing people, that’s not so great—but there are a lot more women in the military than there used to be and now they’re going to be in combat. You look at that and it makes you think, “Well, okay, big progress!” Then, you learn that one in five or more have been sexually assaulted, and then you start to see it a little differently. If you start to think, “Well, why do people join the military?” Often it is for reasons like how they’ll afford to go to college, and that creates another wrinkle. Is it a good thing if in order to get a college education someone has to become a soldier? I don’t think it’s a good thing. You start thinking, “Yeah, in Europe higher education is free!” Then, that whole phenomenon of women in the military that started out as just being this uncomplicated advance for women looks a little different. You even start thinking, “Yeah, why do we have such a big army, you know? What are we doing with our army?”
One of the statistics you gave that seemed most concerning was that there is still a gender pay gap across the board, in all fields. What do you think can be done about that?
I think all the individual can do is try to be aware of their own situation and try to make it better, but what women as a group can do is a lot. For example, do you know that it is illegal for your co-workers to discuss their salaries? Yes. There is a law that has been proposed that would make that okay. If you don’t know how much the guy at the desk next to you is making, you don’t know if you’re making less than you should be for the work that you’re doing. That’s what happened to Lily Ledbetter in the famous case where she had been working at her job for years and somebody sent her an anonymous note saying, “You’re being underpaid, men at your level are being paid much more than you,” and then she found out it was true. She had had no idea that it was true before then. I think there has to be a lot more transparency and people have to be willing to talk about their work situations more, which is hard because work is very connected to your ego and your pride, and how awful would it be to find out someone is being paid more than you for doing the same work? I think the legal structure can do a lot.
Do you think that there are certain fields of careers or household responsibilities that naturally appeal to females or do you think it’s completely cultural?
I have no idea. One of the reasons the pay gap is so big is that men and women do very different jobs, for the most part. There is still a gender-segregated labor market. Just because a job is mostly female, it’s paid less than if it’s mostly male. In our culture, anything to do with children is paid less. A pediatrician is paid less than an internist. A children’s librarian makes less than a regular librarian, etc., etc. We don’t really regard that as skilled labor, to the extent that it has to do with children, it’s just seen as women’s work, not that skilled: you just need a good heart. I do think that, to a certain extent, everyone likes to feel comfortable in their place of work. Most women do not want to be a minority. There’s tremendous sexual harassment and hostility toward women entering mostly-male professions and women know that…
You know, I don’t think we ever will discover whether certain fields are naturally appealing, because people are socialized from birth. Look at how we raise our children. Even more [now] than a bunch of decades ago when I was a child, you go to a toy store and the toys for boys are all about learning and doing, science and building things and trucks, while the toys for girls are all about vanity, clothes, taking care of children and baby dolls. There is so little overlap. When companies take a “boys” toy and try to get girls involved with it, they make it pink, like pink Legos. If Legos are green, white and red, girls won’t play with them? They have to be pink? The books that are typed for girls and typed for boys are completely different. The ones for girls are all about “Does this boy like me?” and “Here’s something embarrassing that happened to me.” I think we are raising the genders very, very differently, at the same point that we’re telling ourselves we’re not. Parents will say, “Oh, I treated them exactly the same but she wanted a doll and he wanted a truck.” When did they have the real choice of the other thing?
What inspired you to become involved with political and cultural issues?
Well, I always was. I was always interested in these things. I think I probably always was interested in this because my parents were. My parents were very left wing and we used to talk about these things at the dinner table. We would have political discussions all the time. To me, it’s fun and it’s not a no-go area at all. I think it does come out of my childhood.