Anneris Ivette Leyva
We are not born women, we become women, Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy told us, a long time ago. Since that poorly understood warning, we have continued learning a few things… wrong.
How many women feel the weight of conservative judgments disqualifying us as good mothers and loving wives, when we attempt to assume these roles along with others, in some kind of proportion?
How many women report that they can manage positions of significant responsibility and visibility thanks to those who at home “understand and help,” as if it were a great favor?
Expectations of women have not changed much since the French author wrote her book The Second Sex, denouncing the subordinate position of women with this title. At the time, her contemporaries learned that the meaning of life lay in being a good mother and better wife, learning to carry out household chores and devoting oneself to satisfying the desires of others, regardless of the effect on one’s own happiness.
Sixty-three years after this landmark literary work, it remains difficult for society to overcome what is traditionally learned and facilitate women’s access to positions of greater responsibility, even within those sectors where they constitute the majority of the qualified personnel.
Given that these positions generally require more time and commitment, there are those who, ‘considering’ that a candidate is married, or has children, do not even offer female candidates the opportunity to choose. At the same time, given the opportunity of a promotion, some women limit themselves, fearing they might not be able to fulfill the responsibilities they have been taught to consider more important, at home.
Since the cultural emancipation created in Cuba by the literacy campaign more than 50 years ago, universal access to all levels of education and the support of the Revolution incorporating ‘housewives’ into the country’s economic life, Cuban women and men have known, but not grasped, that the social distribution of work is not naturally predetermined. It is the mechanism through which relations of power are reproduced – in this case patriarchal – with some positioned above others, incompatible with the goals of a society in which the struggle for liberation and justice is valued.
One of the innumerable expressions of clear prejudice is that, as of September, 2011, eight years after the approval of the maternity Decree-Law 234 which offered men the opportunity to take paternity leave, after the exclusive breast-feeding period – thus facilitating mothers’ return to work, perhaps given her greater prospects for professional or economic development – only 96 fathers had taken advantage of this option. A large portion of this group had done so only because they had no choice, given the mother’s illness or death, according to a report published in Granma on January 27, based on information provided by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
It is paradoxical that such an advanced law, in comparison to others around the world protecting women workers’ maternity rights, should remain largely unused. But if something is acknowledged by experts on the issue and the country’s authorities, it is that these kinds of ground-breaking efforts cannot be left to spontaneity.
The cultural inertia which relegates women to the ‘weaker sex’ category must be answered with the determination to become something different, to shake off the guilt which ties us to an ideal in which frustration is justified, since everyone else comes first, and concentrate on our own empowerment.
It is significant that despite constituting 66% of the technical and professional graduates at the intermediate and higher levels of education in the country, the number of women who exercise decision-making power in the areas of human resources, economics and finances, does not exceed 40%, according to data available at the end of 2011.
In bodies such as the Sports, Physical Education and Recreation Institute (INDER), the Ministries of Steel and Metal, Communication and Agriculture, the figure does not reach 15%. In Tourism, it barely reaches 9% and, according to information from the National Statistics Office (ONEI), among those employed in 2008 in sales, hotels and restaurants, 50% are women.
At the same time, as a fundamental result of recent government efforts, seven entities have been able to ensure than 50 to 70% of their decision-making positions are held by women: the Ministries of Labor & Social Security, Education, and Finances & Prices; the Supreme Court; the offices of the Attorney General and the Comptroller General, as well as the Central Bank of Cuba.
No doubt, comparing these figures with those from previous years, the progress made by women in access to territory once considered exclusively the province of men is evident. However, in this area, the ‘outstanding debts’ remain greater than those ‘paid in full.’
According to information published by ONEI in its Cuban Women, Statistics and Realities report, women represent 81.4% of graduates from medical schools and constitute a majority, 58%, among practicing doctors in the country. Nevertheless, we rarely see a woman leading a large research center or hospital.
For some time now, according to the above source, the percentage of female graduates in Economics has surpassed the 50% mark, but they are infrequently found directing enterprises or budgeted state entities, How many of us, visiting one of these, have asked for the administrator or director, expecting a priori that a man will be sitting behind the desk?
The women ministers, deputy ministers, heads of department and management teams needed to close this power gap, can be found among those never even considered, despite their merits; and also among those who said ‘no’ beforehand or gave up a position because the other woman underneath their skin, the one holding a broom and wearing an apron, held sway.
No one can deny the reality of family responsibilities, but this concerns all human beings. If it is true that behind anyone who takes on a significant public commitment there is someone who helps in private, gender does not necessarily predispose women to playing one role or the other.
POLITICAL WILL AND FEMALE ATTITUDES
As has already been stated, the struggle against pre-established ‘truths’ cannot be left to spontaneity. The empowerment of women must be understood as a strategy directed toward men, who often resist given chauvinist thinking -justified with the best of intentions – and toward women, who as daughters of their times and culture, have not escaped patriarchal logic, despite being victimized.
This is not about awarding a position to a woman because of her gender per se, or in order to fulfill a political directive, without considering qualifications. Female leaders must be prepared to meet the requirements of one or another position. They could be hurt even more, left incapable of fulfilling a responsibility for which they were not correctly evaluated. Of course, after decades of overlooking women, an explicit, intentional policy is needed, which goes beyond subjectivity, seeking among women, the ones who are capable. Surely, many will be found.
In his report to the 6th Party Congress, President Raúl Castro Ruz identified this as a challenge in the effort to improve socialism in Cuba, which will define the future. In a strong self-critical statement, he said, referring not only to women, but to youth, Blacks and those of mixed race, “We have not consistently responded to the innumerable directives communicated by Fidel, since the first days of the revolutionary victory and over the years, because the solution to this imbalance was included in agreements adopted at the transcendental 1st Party Congress and the four which followed, and we did not assure their implementation.”
At the political level this commitment can be promoted, while attitudes among women must be reinforced. There is no justice, 100 years after March 8 was declared International Women’s Day to honor the struggle for women’s rights, if for many women this means the paltry privilege of receiving a flower in the same hands with which they complete assigned tasks, or with which they place the plates on the table and later pick up.