Thursday, May 10, 2012

The MRS Degree

Interesting article on female Indian grads (ie women who have great educations) choosing not to work in Jezebel today.

The lowdown is that these women don't seem to be going to school just to meet their future husbands, as once happened fairly routinely in the USA (and still does to some extent): they're going for the education itself, which they then never plan to use.

Now, this isn't what I witnessed firsthand, but my short time in India bears just a few anecdotes. In my host family, the matriarch, my Amma, did not work, but her daughter-in-law did. My 'host brother' was an zoologist, and his wife an anesthesiologist. It was quite clear that she wasn't doing this just because they had to make ends meet - in a moderately-sized city like Madurai, a zoologist's income is more than enough to support a wife, young son and elderly mother. She did it because she clearly enjoyed having rewarding work and putting her education to good use.

On one hand, reading the article caused me to applaud them a little bit: who wants a 9-to-5 job? Who actually desires that sort of existence? I know, I know, plenty of people would say it's great, including many of my students, but most of my friends agree: office work is something you usually have to do, not something you necessarily want to do. A lot of people, given an economic choice, wouldn't be doing it. It's not - surprise surprise - actually all that much fun. I love teaching, but if I were independently wealthy I'd do it more part-time, because I like it, taking on specific clients only, and travel more, and devote more time to creative and volunteer/charity/activist pursuits. I'd study Chinese more intensively. I'm not a half-bad artist or writer and given more time and practice, I could probably bring in a modest income on those talents. I don't, because I want (and need) more than a modest income.

I also realize I have no right to proclaim what another woman should or should not do with her education.

On the other, I have to wonder about the mindset that would cause a woman to go that far - getting an MA, JD or even PhD - and then not using it. Sure, education as a philosophical ideal is great, and I'm all for educating yourself more regardless, but if it were me I'd go a little crazy, wanting to use what I'd worked so hard to gain expertise in to make a difference in the world. Then again, I also don't want kids, so if I didn't "have" to work, I still would to some extent because - uhh, what else would I do?

This is relevant because, to some extent, I see this in Taiwan as well - although not quite as much. Unlike India, domestic help and other luxuries are not quite as affordable (although still far more so than in the West) - and often are more expensive than in the West (ie pretty much any brand name item, from Coach to Le Creuset). Let's say a man is making an upper middle class income of about NT$300,000/month (I know, all you cram school teachers just had heart attacks, but this is pretty standard among my students). His wife doesn't have to work - you can raise a family on that salary no problem: fairly comfortably, even.

But unlike an equivalently high salary in India, that wouldn't necessarily get you a roomy apartment, or one downtown (or both), or one that allowed your kids to attend Jianguo or Taipei First Girls' High School or, even more status-tacular, the American School. It wouldn't put a fancy handbag on your arm, driving a BMW or put a Cartier ring on your finger. You wouldn't be drinking Burgundy out of  Reidel glasses. Rather, it could do some of those things but not all, and those striving for upper middle class or true wealth in Taiwan seem to want all of it. To have that here, you often need two incomes.

Enter - more educated Taiwanese women working. On NT$300,000 a month you can have a few luxuries - if what you're into is really luxury. On NT$600,000+, you can just about have it all, even if you're not quite Terry Guo. The fact that the country has a low birthrate has a lot to do with this too: for the middle class, it seems like the work hours and cost of living is keeping them from having kids. With the upper classes, it's the opposite: they're not having kids (or having fewer of them) because they want to achieve at work. As someone who isn't really interested in having children, I say more power to them. Taiwan doesn't need to be any more crowded: let's pour the "HAVE A BABY DAMMIT!" government promotion funding into helping seniors when the workforce can't support them, and then let the population level off naturally so we don't tax our resources. Let's work to get back to replacement level and keep it there.

I have met, however, Taiwanese women who do get educated and then get home. More than a few of my students have said that they don't actually like or want their jobs, and when they get married they hope to quit. Others actually have: I've had more than one female student get married - we all go yay! Congrats! - and within six months she's out the door and there's an empty cubicle, and an empty chair in the conference room when I'm teaching.

And, sadly, still others do this because, while they can date and have high incomes, they fear that they'll have trouble marrying if they have a high income - there are still many Taiwanese men who can't handle the idea of his wife earning more than he does. They're not all this way, but enough are that it's still a social scourge. In just a moment I'm going to write a post about this which will probably attract angry comments, so that'll be fun.

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