In the Bonds of Concern – Does Equality for Women Really Exist?

By Zuzanna Mietlińska

Did you know that in the XXIst-century “global North” there are certain jobs which are still prohibited for women? That in a vast majority of today’s political entities you won’t find a woman bearing certain offices, or the law that has a potential to change it is still debated? 

The following article presents two different perspectives on this issue. Firstly, the feminist perspective – on how this prohibition is against the individual right of a woman to choose her profession. Secondly, the conservative perspective – on how the above-mentioned laws are considered as a “shield of protection” for women. 

Quick note on the historical overview

Not everyone knows that until recently (2017 y.), the Polish labour code has prohibited Polish women from becoming miners, and Russian women in their home country were not able to become truck drivers (until 2019 y.). These women were furthermore prohibited from nearly 456 other professions, of which the vast majority was clearly physical (2018). Although it might shock some, this juridical reality stems naturally because of the countries’ historical perturbations. Both political entities were once communist, and under these legislations have passed certain laws (Poland – 1951 and 1959 regulations) that appealed to pre-war International Labour Organisation Convention no. 45 (1935). The article 2 from this Convention stated that: “No female, whatever her age, shall be employed on underground work in any mine”. But that’s not all – there was a cornucopia of such jobs, such as septic tank servicers. It can be deduced that in the communist era, these regulations were validated due to the welfare state approach of the countries, and such countries as Poland reflected “protective” approach to women in general.

It is important to note that although there is a distinct correlation between the countries’ political system and its likelihood to pass the above-mentioned laws, there are countries which act as ‘outliers’ in this matter. An excellent example can be posed by France, in which women could not work in submarines until 2017. Furthermore, the 1935 Convention was ratified by many European countries, and in the modern European Union, Bulgaria and Greece still have it legally-valid.

It is also crucial to understand the fact that only very recently, in the so-called “global North”, these laws were either radically or partly changed – in 2020 Poland for example, the labour code states that only during the pregnancy, women can be prohibited from performing (mainly physical) work. 

However, a curious question remains. What are perspectives that can be lighted on the issue of such prohibition in general? Is it against or pro-individual rights of a woman to choose her profession?

The feminist perspective

An interesting view in this matter can be set by XXI-century feminists. What can be observed on the example of the formerly communist countries in Europe is that, although the social aspect of the political system has provided women with opportunities to work in certain sectors, the so-called professional activation, the common access to nurseries and social benefits from the government were improving the situation of women only outwardly. Among many factors, the deeply rooted patriarchal worldview, veritable cultural prudishness and the lack of sexual revolution (as observed in the West) have contributed to the “patronizing” approach to women. In that sense, the regulations in the Eastern Block, through appealing to the 1935 Convention, have only deepened the “shield of protection” approach to women. In other words, the logic of positive discrimination has taken its turn – the willingness to protect women from “overload” of physical work is, in fact, a form of social exclusion of a certain group of society from work. One can imagine a woman who wants to work as a truck driver for example, and her disappointment when she finds out it’s actually impossible. It’s even more shocking, that these regulations were not abolished until recently. The XXIst century juxtaposes the 4th wave of feminism in the Global North, the ability and equity in many aspects of women’s lives, with ignorance in other aspects. And what is surprising, is that this fact is either omitted or not known for the majority of people – there seem to be more “dramatic” socio-cultural topics to debate on. 

There are roughly eight indicators (Women. Business and the Law 2020) that concur to an index that measures “legal differences between men and women”, one of which is the workplace indicator. As stated, it “analyzes the laws affecting women’s decision to work”. One of the questions that quantify different aspects of it, asks: “Does the law prohibit discrimination in employment based on gender?”, and unequal access to certain jobs can indeed be considered as a form of gender discrimination. 

One can also ask a question: “in XXIst century, what is the difference between professional heavy lifting in sports, in which women compete on a daily basis, and heavy lifting at work, prohibited by most of the countries”? Both are, a priori, voluntary but only one form of work is “stigmatised” in the workplace. 

The conservative perspective

Another approach to the matter of job prohibition for women can be set by conservatives. From this point of view, the above-mentioned prohibition was meant to work as a “safeguard” for women. It is a fact that the performance, differentiation of muscle mass between men and women makes some individuals physically weaker, so that it is logical for women it would be effortful to work physically in the same professions as men do. In other words, it’s not discrimination if it’s for the good of an individual. The professions that require weightlifting of some sort illustrates this problem. 

Furthermore, job prohibition for women is meant to protect women from severe working conditions (eg. extremely high/low temperatures, weightlifting of some sort) and their possibility to affect women’s health. In the Global North, the logic of this argument used to be especially relevant when, historically, the access to, for example, contraception and pregnancy tests was either limited or non-existent. One can imagine a woman working physically, and, thus, have a miscarriage. 

There is also an economic “touch” to the problem – no employer would agree to give a woman paid time off for the time of pregnancy, as that would be cost-ineffective in the first place

The idea of job prohibition for some group of people opens doors for a broader, political-philosophical debate – the debate on the responsibility. Whether it should be in the hands of the individuals to decide and determine upon their future (either aware or unaware of its after-effects), or it should be rather handled to an authority (eg. the government, the lawmakers). There is no clear answer to the problem, and a heated “pros and cons” debate over the issue is indeed interesting to be a part of.

Further reading:

Edited by Joanna Sowińska

Artwork by Emma van den Nouweland