Thursday, May 10, 2012

Breadwinning The Future

A few months ago I taught a unit to a group of students, all of whom happened to be female. The unit focused on idioms dealing with careers, work and ambition: things like “bring home the bacon”, “burn the candle at both ends”, “hit the glass ceiling” and “be a breadwinner”.

I did a survey in that class – eight idioms in total, one question per idiom that a student had to ask all of her classmates. One of these questions was “Is it OK for a wife to be the primary breadwinner?”

I was really surprised by the results – 4 in favor and 4 against. The “against” responders later clarified that they meant that they personally did not want to be breadwinners, but that it would be fine with them if another woman was one. A personal choice, not a view on what society should be. Those four women all expanded on their ideas, with responses along the lines of “I feel it’s not fulfilling to have to work hard and be responsible for earning most of the money” to “I like to feel that my husband can take care of me” to “honestly speaking, I don’t like my job and when I get married I hope I can quit” to “most Taiwanese men can’t accept a wife who makes more than he does, so it is easier if I don’t”.

OK, fair enough in that these are personal choices, and earning the bulk of the family income doesn’t have to be a life goal, nor is it necessarily fulfilling, so I can respect that as a choice. The final answer, though, that it’s “just easier” because “Taiwanese men can’t accept a wife who is a breadwinner” really irked me. Yet another example women giving in to pander to the egos of men, because it’s easier than standing up, fighting back, and telling a guy like that to **** off, and slowly, one by one, pushing the culture in a more progressive direction. It sucks when you feel you’re the only one doing it, but a culmination of women who do is the only way to change things.

Of course, in class I have to be careful not to ever show even the appearance of passing judgment on a student’s opinion, so my response was more measured.

I was planning to do the same unit in another class, and the other day that finally happened. Interestingly, this time, in a class of 4 women and 4 men, all 8 (plus me, for a total of 9) said it was fine for a wife to be a breadwinner.

Hooray! I thought! Progress! Taiwan can haz it!

People’s elaboration was more along the lines of “well why wouldn’t that be OK? Of course it’s OK”.

Again, yay, progress!

Then one of the female students said “I wonder if these 4 guys would be OK if their wives earned more.”

And, sadly, all four said something along the lines of “No way!” “No, I’m not comfortable with that!” or “I’m not a – how do you say – 小白臉! 我不吃軟飯!

That translates literally into “I’m not a little white face”, but it’s more like “I’m not a little b****!”, although perhaps slightly less profane. The second phrase translates into “I don’t eat soft rice”, which is idiomatic.

Face, meet palm. Progress? Progress? Where did you go, O Progress? But not in class. Inwardly, I was all HULK ANGRY! HULK SMASH! but I had to present a professional face. 

All I could do was point out the logic problem: “so it’s OK for other women to be breadwinners, but not for your wives?”

“Yes, I know, it is wrong, but we are old guys!” one said. “I think the young generation won’t have this opinion.”

Well, at least he knows it’s wrong. It’s about as sexist as “I don’t mind gay people but my son better not be gay” (also a common refrain in Taiwan) is homophobic. That is, very. 

This isn’t exactly news in Taiwan, but it’s worth noting even as I blog about all the awesome, successful women I work with: general managers, regional CEOs, executives, vice presidents. I earn good money, but these women could trample me salary-wise. It’s worth noting again even as we move on from the aftermath of an election that came very close to giving Taiwan its first female president.

As usual, the problem isn’t that women aren’t capable, willing or ambitious. It isn’t the law holding them back – although the laws are not perfect. The system is stacked against them, still, but not nearly as much as in other Asian countries.

The problem, as it always seems to, boils down to men with idiotic, outdated, sexist and egotistical attitudes. Not all men, obviously, but enough that this is really the main issue (as it is in the USA, where other than our reproductive rights and access being eroded frighteningly quickly, legally we’ve reached a place better than previously achieved in history – and yet those attitudes linger on).

There are Taiwanese women who will agree with those men – the first example I gave had a few, but even they will be quick to note that theirs is a personal choice and not an edict for society. You won’t meet many Taiwanese women who will say that all women should earn less than their husbands, or that it’s a man’s right, pride and face to be a breadwinner. You will, however, meet men in Taiwan who will say that – even though the men in my second example did technically word their opinions as a personal choice, not a social ideal (in that sense it wasn’t a very good example).
But, that aside, you will hear men and women alike say that Taiwanese men generally prefer to out-earn their wives. Hell, you can meet American men who would say something similar.
This is what really needs to change – men’s attitudes generally toward breadwinning wives. I have no issue if a traditionally-minded man and a similarly traditional woman get together and do their traditional thing, but I do have an issue with this attitude as a social construct, and I’d like to, overall, see a steep decline in the number of people who adhere to it – consciously or not. I’d like to see high wage-earning women have more romantic options and not feel that their salaries pose an obstacle when it comes to finding a partner (if a partner is what they want). I’d like them to know, confidently, that there are men out there – enough men - who won’t be scared off by the idea of them being breadwinners.

This may be one of the reasons why so few foreign women seem to date Taiwanese men (although, generally, I’m seeing more dating in that direction which I think is great). There are progressive ones out there, but a lot of them are still pretty traditional. I wouldn’t date a guy who felt he had to make more than me, simply because he was the Big Manly Man, regardless of how our salaries actually matched up. It’s an issue of principle.

And I do feel that this change needs to come from the men: their desire to always be breadwinners is based on face, not reality or sensibility – and I’m sorry but this is just something that needs to stop being a “face” issue. I know, it’s rich of me to say that, when I don’t have a Taiwanese cultural background, but c’mon. Taiwanese culture has managed to make having a female boss not such a big issue of face. They managed to make having a working wife at all to be not an issue of face. Taiwan is a fairly progressive country when compared to the rest of Asia – I see no reason why this can’t be changed with time and perseverance as well.

Although, as usual, it’ll be women doing all the cultural heavy lifting and then the men who finally need to make the change in their attitudes. Ah, history. Don’t you love it when it repeats?

I’ll end with an anecdote I’m sure I’ve told before on this blog. Almost a year ago, just before we left for Turkey, we had dinner with some local friends of mine. My husband was facing visa issues – basically, our company was being a giant ass – and it had all gotten really bad just that day. Because we’re friends, we shared the Our Company is a Giant Ass and is Screwing With My Husband’s Visa story. At one point I said, “honey, if it’s that bad, and you really feel you need to do it for your own dignity, quit. Just quit. I make enough to support us. Do what you need to do and we’ll make it work.”

The guy friend looked shocked but said nothing. Later, he told me that it was really surprising to hear that – a lot of women would not just tell their husbands it was OK to quit and she’d support them in the meantime. I was worried he thought I was some sort of scary feminist ogre (not because I’d be ashamed to be that, but because I’d be disappointed in a friend who thought that), but no. He thought it was awesome, and that I was a “woman with guts”. Taiwan is a great country with fantastic people, but let’s be honest – you won’t get too many Taiwanese men thinking that.

This is what I hope for. This is what I want to see more of. It can be done.

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