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The Five Modalities of Male Desire and How They Limit Women’s Opportunities:

Modalities II and III


In the previous essay in this series, we argued that women’s economic opportunities are shaped by male employers’ decisions about which occupations and jobs should go to women. These decisions in turn are shaped by five different modalities of male desire about what men want from women at work. In that first essay we discussed Modality I: Men Excluding Women from the Workplace to Reinforce Their Own Status as Men

In this essay, we cover two other modalities:

Modality II: Men Seeking Approval from High Status Feminist Gatekeepers


Modality III: Men Seeking Approval from High Status Patriarchal Gatekeepers

Obviously, these two are a matched set of polar opposites.

In business, gatekeepers are individuals or organizations outside the firm who have strategic leverage over the corporation. These include major customers, providers of credit, government regulators, and in some cases, professional associations or opinion shapers for the general public.

If the people in those outside gatekeeper organizations do not like the company, the company is going to have problems.

If the people in those outside gatekeeper organizations have a gender agenda, the company will be under pressure to conform to those norms, regardless of whether that agenda is pro-feminist or anti-feminist.

Let us consider the case where the outside gatekeepers are feminist.

Modality II: symbolic displays of feminism to appeal to western gatekeepers.

Some companies are just feminist, and they do not want to see conspicuous sexism in the other companies they deal with.

This can turn into a conspicuous issue when a company from a traditional society in the global south must work with a high status partner in the United States and Europe. The American and European firms all have high status high powered female executives. The American and European firms all have female engineers. If the Indian or the Nigerian or Guatemalan company does not want to look like a backward stick-in-the-mud, they had better get some highly visible female executives and engineers too.

This pressure is even more intense in high tech industries – or any other industries where American and European firms are viewed as having superior know-how. The company from the Global South has to show it is completely modern; it is completely up-to-date; it can do anything the pros from California or London can do. The Global Southerners dress like the Californians or Londoners. They are up on the same music listened to by the Californians or Londoners. They have modern gender attitudes just like the Californians or Londoners.

Winifred Poster has written about this type of feminist showmanship in reference to Indian multinationals.  When Indian companies are making conspicuous displays of following “best” Western practice, they put women in high status positions with high visibility. There are high powered Indian women on the marketing team. There are high powered Indian women on the team collaborating with the Google engineers. There are high powered Indian women on the financial team negotiating an equity swap in Frankfurt. Poster notes that these superwomen only appear on the façade. You go inside the back-room offices where the company does its internal work, and you see nothing but male supervisors and a male power structure. The company does not score public relations points by employing women for internal functions. The good internal jobs are reserved for men.

Modality III: symbolic displays of traditional gender norms to appeal to patriarchal gatekeepers.

When the external gatekeepers are sexist rather than feminist, the company has to conspicuously demonstrate that it defends the status and rights of men. Often these patriarchal norms are couched in religion and traditional culture. Gender decisions are part of a larger set of displays showing morality and compliance with long standing local values. We normally think of religious exclusion of women in terms of Islamic societies. Note that our stereotypes of patriarchal Islamic societies are based on perceptions of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. There are some Moslem countries such as Malaysia or Morocco with highly Westernized gender values and extensive integration of women into the labor force. You don’t, however, have to go to Saudi Arabia to find examples of the religious exclusion of women from work. Conservative religious values have restricted opportunity for women in the West as well.

The most historically important incidence of an external religious agenda affecting women’s access to work may have occurred in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Female labor force participation was widespread in Britain before the Industrial Revolution. Women routinely worked on farms. They spun and wove textiles for sale. They sold prepared foods at markets. In seventeenth and eighteenth century England, work was done at home, whether it was farming or manufacture. Who worked when jobs needed to be done at home? Whoever was around who happened to be able bodied.

This changed in the Industrial Revolution. The early textile factories initially hired women because women would work more cheaply than men. Increasingly, however, there was a movement against female factory women. Women came to be excluded from many forms of paid employment.

A key cause of women being thrown out of the factories was a religious revival which placed renewed emphasis on female domesticity. The Industrial Revolution produced a religious split between England’s aristocratic and capitalist classes with the aristocracy favoring the Church of England while the new industrial entrepreneurs favored Methodism. Nineteenth century Methodism reconfigured Christianity to emphasize entrepreneurial values such as thrift, hard work and self-denial. Methodist gender teaching emphasized domesticity. By the Methodist teachings, respectable women stayed home and raised their family, while unrespectable women stayed out on the street. It became important for religious activists to remove women from the corrupting aspects of professional life, returning them to a life of piety and home-making.

Many of the key employers in early Victorian Britain were Methodists. Methodist employers not only excluded women from their own firms. They were politically active in “moral reform”. Moral reform meant working to pass protective legislation banning women’s employment in most occupations. The only jobs left open were traditional female jobs such as working as a cook or chamber maid.

The early nineteenth century produced a catastrophic decline in economic opportunity for women. The consequences for many women were dire. Women who were in a good marriage with a husband who could provide for them were able to prosper. Women with non-standard family situations – women who were spinsters, women who were abandoned by their husbands,  women whose husbands drank away the family money, women whose husbands were disabled – these were women who were left with few legal options for how they could survive. In some cases, they could survive by taking in washing, or taking lodgers or doing textile work at night. In other cases, they had to turn to more desperate means.

In Britain, the Victorian era was the Golden Age of Prostitution. Men were wealthy due to Britain’s rise to global economic pre-eminence. Women were poor since they had been banned from working. Give men economic security and ample disposable income. Make women economically vulnerable to the point where their ability to feed themselves and their children is precarious. Trading sex for money is the natural result. Prostitution soared in Victorian Britain with the 1840's and 1850’s being the statistical high point.

Prostitution in this era was often a dark affair. The widespread practice of flogging children often produced adult men who were happiest when they were flogging someone else. Sometimes they would pay to flog the prostitute. Sometimes they would pay to flog the prostitute’s child.

Prostitution began to decline around the 1870’s. Some of this just came from better policing. However much of it came from the opening of legitimate non-sexual job opportunities for women. School teaching rose as a profession. Nursing rose as a profession. Secretarial work rose as a profession. All of these occupations employed women. These were jobs that were not covered by the ancient Factory Acts. Women became more economically independent, and less desperate. The need to take on dangerous and disreputable work became less pressing.

More importantly, the moral reformers of the 1810’s and 1820’s had moved on. Protecting women from the evils of employment was not as important as it had been sixty years earlier. Reformers now worked on cleaning up slums, providing education for poor children, extending the franchise, and increasingly, women’s rights. An employer could hire women without being morally censured by the elders of his church. With the external religious pressure gone, male employers feminized their labor forces enthusiastically.

*  *  *

Modalities II and III show what will happen to women’s opportunities when male employers are trying to please outside gatekeepers. But sometimes outside gatekeepers are not the issue. The male employers are acting on their own behalf, and doing what they truly and genuinely want to do. We saw what happens when male employers want to exclude women. What happens when male employers want to hire women for purposes that are basically male?

Stay tuned for the next installment!

For More Information

For information on women in Indian multinationals, see Winifred Poster’s article in the 1998 Journal of Developing Societies “Globalization, Gender and the Workplace: Women and Men in an American Multinational in the India” and her 2013 article in Gender, Sexuality and Feminism, “Global Circuits of Gender: Women and High Tech Work in India and the United States”.

For information on traditional pressures restricting female employment in Islamic societies, see Valentine Moghadam. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East.

For a history of English prostitution, see Judith Walkowitz. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State. For seamier stuff that has little to do with this essay, see her later City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London.

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