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Whose Myths Are They Anyway?

: A Comment
Author(s): Irene Bruegel
Source: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), pp. 175-177
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science
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Irene Bruegel

Whosemythsare they anyway?:a comment

In the world at large 'feminist'has become something of a term of abuse.


Catherine Hakim'sarticle'Five feminist myths'therefore warrantssome
comment, if only in an attemptto shore up Sociology'smore scientificuse
of the term.
There are three main points to be made. First, Hakim'sfeminist is of
course a caricature.Nothing wrong with that, except that nowhere does
she provideany citationsto enable any of us to respond to specificcharges.
Moreover,many feminists,myself included, can quite happilyagree with
a numberof her supposedlycontentious statements.Indeed, matnyof the
writersshe cites in support of her arguments would describe themselves
as feminists.Second, as I hope to show in this comment, her treatmentof
statistical evidence is surprisingly carralier.Third, her argument is
curiously static for a sociologist. Attitudes and work orientations of
women, or more precisely some women, are treated as givens. The
interesting question of how these are formed and how these develop, is
left unasked. If McCrate, an economist, can recognJze that: 'Women
chose to learntoprefermotheringover auto mechanicsfor the same reason
that one would choose to learn to enioy winterratherthan summersports
in a cold c}imate'(McCrate 1988:237, emphasis in the original), then
Hakim'slackof interest in preference fo}mation is all the more curious.
Some of Hakim's myths are established by sleight of hand. Hakim is
right to point out, as she has done over the years, that totaI women's
participationhas not increased. Therefore her crsiIasmof authors who
fail to emphasizethat the rise has been in nsamedwomen's,and especially
involvement in formal paid empIoyment may be apt. But she is
mother's
wrong to deny 'a substantialincrease in . . . employrnentthroughout this
century . . . among marriedwomen' ( 1995:430). Indeed this contention
sits awkwardlywith her recognition of a 'substitutionof marriedwomen
for single women workers' (op. cit.:431). There is then no basis for
berating 'feminists' for their interest in the way a rise in married/
the
cohabitingwomen'sparticipationmay have affected behaviourmrithin
work
between
paid
of
distribution
of
the
pattern
The
shifting
househoId.
household membersis real, and is relevantto feminist scholarship.
Her argument that part-time work is not the resuIt of childcare
PJnt.ltil. tsJ.Sz. V4u no. 47 I.zsueno. I

March 1996

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1951*

IreneBruegel

176

constraints rests on a static time frame. It is true that around half of


Britain'spart-timeworkersdo not currentlyhave childrenunder the age
of 16. But most of these will be mothersof older/adultchildrenand very
few are under the age of thirty. This raises very interestingquestionsof
why women remain in part-timework even after their children have left
school; for older women expectationsabout domesticroles certainlyplay
a part. But if a comparison is made with other countries, the case for
seeing lack of childcare as one factor setting women along a long term
path of part-timeworkis strong.
Information on other EU countries is treated highly selectively in
Hakim'sarticle:it is, for example, not true that part-timeworkis invarzably
voluntarilychosen (op. cit.:435). The LabourForceSurveyshowsthat in
a numberof countriesof the EU - Belgium, for example- the majorityof
part-time workers say they would like full-timejobs. Moreover recent
analysis of the Labour Force Survey points to a 60 per cent increase,
admittedly from a small base, in the numbers of part-timeworkers in
Britainwho would 'prefer'a full-timejob.
Hakim's attempt to re-establish the myth of women as unstable,
unreliable workers is the most disturbing part of her paper. It is, of
course, true that, takenas a whole, women have higher turnoverratesand
shorter job tenure durations than men. The results of a regression
analysisof job duration for all those employed and living in South-East
England in 1993, suggests that the effects of gender are relativelysmall
once occupation, age and type of job are controlled for. Though job
duration rose by about 4 months for every extra year of age, women
without dependent children had on averagebeen in theirjobsjust 1 year
less than men withoutchildren. The averagedurationof currentjobs for
mothers was cet. par. 2 years and 8 months less than fathers, which is
hardlysurprisinggiven the norm that it is women not men who leavetheir
jobs when startinga family(See Bruegel and Lyons 1995 forthcoming).In
some occupations- cateringand routine assembly,for example- women
tend to have been in jobs longer than men, in each age group. Of course
there is considerableroom for discussionabout what is and what isn'tan
appropriate control. It is possible to follow human capital theorists in
arguing that women choose occupations in which high turnover is not
penalized; equally the same data can be used to argue that employers
select women for occupation where high turnover is not costly. Either
way, higher turnover amongst women workers is not inherent, but the
result of an interactionbetween occupationand gender.
What comes as a surprise is Hakim'sapparent belief that lower work
orientation amongst women is in any way surprising. She is certainly
tilting at windmillsin attackingfeminists for other ideas. Aside from the
large group of feministswho questionany desire to be involvedin a man's
worldon male ternls,most feministsrecognizethat for mostwomen, most
of the time, work is toil, done out of necessity, not a desire for
self-fulfilment.In these circumstances,a choice to work parttime in ajob

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Whosemythsare theyanywayt

177

that leaves you free for the school holidayscan be seen as something of a
luxury. The low rate of part-time work amongst ethnic minorities in
Britain attests to this point (see Bruegel 1994), but that doesn't make
part-timework unexploitative;rather it raises the question of how, and
when, and where}and whyjobs may be offered on a part-timebasis.
In her argument Hakim is reading preferences into outcomes without
considering how circumstancesframe preferences. This is a long-standing criticism made by sociologists of neo-classicaleconomics and it is
strange to find such an argument being made in a leading journal of
Sociology.
(Dateaccepted:June 1995)

IreneBruegel
SouthBank UniversitR

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bruegel, I. 1994 'Sex and Race in the


LabourMarket' in M. Evans (ed.) The
WomanQuestion(2nd edition), London:
Sage.
Bruegel,I. and Lyons,M. 1995'(Jasualisation in the London Labour Market',
SouthBankUniversityWorkingPaper.

Hakim, C. 1995 'Five feminist myths


aboutwomen'semployment',BritishJournal ofSociology
46(3):429-55.
McCrate,E. 1988 'Gender Difference:
The Role of Endogenous Preferences
and (:ollectiveAction',AmericanEconomic
Review78(2):235-9.

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