Further sex equality law would be counter-productive and risks discriminating against men argues a new article published today by a leading expert in the field.
Catherine Hakim, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says that calls for more legislation to help women balance work and family life are fuelled by 'feminist myths' - such as the belief that women in the developed world work longer hours than men.
Writing in Public Policy Review, Dr Hakim says that in future social and family policy should be gender-neutral rather than geared towards helping women.
She says: 'In the 20th century, equality legislation was essential in order to eliminate entrenched sexism in the workplace. Nowadays, people regard themselves as free to make their own choices as to how to live.'
Dr Hakim, from LSE's Department of Sociology, suggests that given real freedom to choose, women and men divide into three lifestyle-preference groups - home-centred, work-centred and adaptives (who combine work and family). Some women do choose a career-driven life but nowhere in western Europe is it more than one in four women who do so.
Sweden, which has followed equal opportunities policies for decades, has seen little impact on the sexual division of labour in the home and the workplace and surveys show that nearly all Swedish women prefer not to share their maternity leave with the father.
Sweden's experience, Dr Hakim says, shows that while we can legislate to give equality of opportunity, it is unrealistic to expect equality of outcome - men and women don't choose work and home in the same proportions: 'I predict that men will continue to dominate in the workforce and public life while women will continue to dominate in family life, even in the absence of sex discrimination, because there are some residual differences in tastes, values and lifestyle choices.'
An example of gender-neutral policy is the Belgian scheme which gives paid sabbatical leave to both men and women which they can use for childcare, further education or any other purpose.
Calls for more gender equality laws, says Dr Hakim, are driven by feminists who 'continue to manafacture myths about women's opression'. She cites the oft-quoted belief that women work harder than men by doing a double-shift at home and work. In fact, she says, time budget studies show that men and women in the developed world work almost identical hours averaged across their life.
She concludes: 'Women now have real choices between a focus on family work and/or paid employment. In comparison, it is men who now have more circumscribed choices, with work-centred lives still the norm for men. Perhaps equality legislation should address this imbalance instead of a continued focus on women.'
The full article is published in Public Policy Review, the journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research.
For more information:
Dr Catherine Hakim 020 7955 6655
LSE press office 020 7955 7440
6 November 2008