A new book claims that increasingly men are the more discriminated against gender. Can it be true?
It's pretty well known that one gender is discriminated against in the workplace. It's common knowledge that society is set up to favour one sex over the other. It's obvious to anyone who cares to analyse the facts that one gender is the 'second sex'.
And according to a new book, that gender is male.
That's not the way it's usually presented, of course. You don't have to be a feminist to know that society has long been viewed as a patriarchal construct, developed to push men into top positions in politics, business, culture, you name it, as well as to give them primacy in domestic affairs and to keep women at a secondary level.
But David Benatar, head of the philosophy department at Cape Town University and author of The Second Sexism, believes things have changed. He says the roles have been reversed, and that men are now the more discriminated against sex in many fundamental areas.
Is he right? We take a look at the arguments.
A secret sexism?
Benatar's argument is not that prejudice against women doesn't exist or that it has never existed. Clearly, much of the history of the Western world has had a patriarchal flavour, and men continue to occupy more of the positions of power in a whole raft of areas. By occupying those positions, they can use them to their own advantage.
But he says that's no longer the whole story. In seeking to redress that prejudice, Benatar believes that, inadvertently or otherwise, society has left many men in a disadvantaged position. The problem is that, at the moment, sexism against men is either unacknowledged or considered a joke.
"So unrecognised is the second sexism that the mere mention of it will appear laughable to some," writes Benatar. "Such people cannot even think of any ways in which males are disadvantaged, and yet some of them are surprised, when provided with examples, that they never thought of these before."
Not true equality
It's a bugbear of women that the fight for equality has only taken them so far. Many still perceive a glass ceiling in many professions (and for good reason) that very few women are allowed to smash through.
But Benatar echoes others when he suggests that the fight for equality has only taken women so far in other areas, too specifically areas where equality might not be so desirable.
"Male disadvantages include the absence of immunity, typically enjoyed by females, from conscription into military service," he writes. The equality to go off and fight, get injured and die in wars is not one many women are fighting for.
This is one example among many, he says. Men who transgress the law typically face harsher punishments than their female counterparts, and though less common than sexual assault against women, the rape of men is seriously under-reported.
Then there's the issue of divorce and child custody. There is still an assumption that children are better off with their mother after separation, and only in quite extreme cases are fathers awarded custody. In a truly equal society, should such an assumption exist?
Finally, many commentators now think the education system favours girls above boys. Tests carried out for the OECD in 2009 found that boys lagged behind girls in reading in every developed country in the world. That might partly explain why more women than men now go on to higher education.
Equality in the workplace
In the world of work, at least, things seem more clear-cut. Here, at the top end of the scale, women still clearly miss out.
The Sex and Power 2011 survey, compiled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK, found that only 12.9 per cent of senior members of the judiciary were women, and only 22.2 per cent of MPs. Taken as a whole, the report found that 5,400 women were 'missing' from the country's 26,000 most powerful posts.
"We had hoped to see an increase in the number of women in positions of power, however this isn't happening," said a spokeswoman for the Commission.
But again, this may not be the whole story. One study found that, within a few years, more women than men would be doctors. And a Cambridge University report found that, across 10 European countries, more women than men are now employed as doctors, architects and lawyers.
"A quiet revolution in the workplace means that the widespread idea that women do the low-status jobs is now wrong," said one of the report's authors.
And in discussions of gender at work Benatar and others think one half of the equation is all too often ignored. At the bottom end of the scale, the least desirable and most dangerous jobs, and those with least pay and security, remain largely the domain of men.
The upshot of all this is slowly being felt in pay packets. Last year a study found that in the 22-29 age group the average hourly pay for women is now higher than it is for men.
The rise of inequality
For balance, it ought to be pointed out that much of this is fairly new. Women of all ages have traditionally earned less than men, for example. It's only recently that young women and young women alone have overtaken their male peers.
And does all this really mean that men are now discriminated against? Critics might point out that, though men are far more likely to be the victims of violence, they're also far more likely to be the perpetrators. And if more men get maimed or killed in wars, it's usually because governments predominantly made up of other men sent them off to fight.
Nevertheless, Benatar surely has a point. Men get heart disease on average 10 years before women and die earlier too. Boys increasingly lag behind girls at school. If nothing else, it's worth having a discussion about why that might be and what can be done about it. But that's a discussion, says Benatar, which society is reluctant to have.
"The second sexism is neglected sexism, the sexism that is not taken seriously even by most of those who oppose (or at least claim that they oppose) sex discrimination."
When the stark facts are presented, as they are in Benatar's book, it's hard not to agree that male disadvantage in some areas is at least as worthy of serious debate as female disadvantage in others.