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Complementarianism: Religion, Women's Work and the Economy

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Last week, Rick Santorum, a man more Catholic than the Pope, in an appeal to fundamentalist, Protestant evangelical voters, said of Mitt Romney, a committed conservative Mormon and former bishop of that faith, that "by understanding the "centrality of family" he "has hit all the points" particularly when it comes to the interconnection between social and economic issues." Clearly, a broad brush is being applied to religion by these men and their audiences when they paint a coded picture of "family's" centrality to their world views. Politically active, religiously inspired "social" conservatives long ago realized the importance and necessity of coming together, across faiths when necessary, to preserve highly gendered social, political and corporate power structures.

That's why politicians go all patriarchal and faithy to convey that the "father knows best" family model will remain the model for the country and its economy. And yet... I am not supposed to raise objections to broadly applied religious influence on political leaders? Hmm. If I paint with a broad brush I'm doing it in emulation of conservatives who long ago coalesced against the "horrors of feminism" and modernity to protect divinely inspired male dominance. So, in fairness, humour me while I get all secular feminist thinky for four and a half minutes.

If you are a working (that would be for pay) woman and you work for a man who has a stay-at-home wife, your chances of getting a promotion are less than if you worked for one whose wife works. (And, so it's not a red herring, I am on the record as abhorring sexist "mommy wars" frameworks.) How do you think this dynamic works writ large into corporate and government policies in organizations managed overwhelmingly by men who run The Economy? Of the Fortune 1000 only 14.3 percent have female board members. People managing boards, businesses and companies are overwhelmingly men (84 percent). A survey of 1200 executives conducted by Families and Work Institute revealed that 75 percent of the men had stay-at-home wives. I'd bet a fair amount of money that the numbers for political representatives (also roughly 83 percent male, more for state representation and governorships) are similar. More and more families work in much more gender-neutral, dual-centric (work/family) ways, but that hasn't yet filtered up into management and policy.

Studies of men in traditional marriages, where wives do not work for compensation out of the home and whose role is as the primary and sole breadwinner, show that they are actually hostile to women in the workplace, particularly in leadership roles, and are disinclined to create or enforce policies that help equality in the workplace. This is the conclusion of a recent study conducted by professors at Harvard University, New York University and University of Utah, which reinforced the results of separate independent studies, "Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace":

Employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.

This gendered imbalance in power at the highest levels seriously slows our country down and contributes to all sorts of things that people longing for small government don't want to pay for.

Despite women's monumental gains in the workplace, there remains a disturbing reality: women are stuck at 17 percent of leadership roles. Thirty-nine percent of working mothers are now the sole providers for their families (compared to 43 percent of men, who are twice as likely to be making more than $50K and more than six times as likely to be making six-figure incomes). In virtually no sector of our public culture do women make up more than roughly 17 percent of leadership and management positions -- not politics, entertainment, media, religion or corporate management. This is true even though we know that companies and countries with more equitable gender balanced management are, time and time again, demonstrably more productive and economically secure.

Our GDP would grow by a minimum of nine percent (9%), a $1,390.85 BILLION dollar increase in our productivity and output, if we could eliminate gender disparities in wages, reduce gendered occupational segregation, and secure women's leadership parity in senior management on corporate boards. As it is however, men are undeniably dominant as leaders in public life and women are still primarily responsible for domestic life and management.

There is a term for this division of labor, Complementarianism, and this is how it is defined:

Complementarianism is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are created to complement each other via different roles and responsibilities as manifested in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere... it is a generally patriarchal view of the family (the father is responsible to lead, provide for, teach his children to know and love God).

This belief, which holds that only men should be appointed into authoritative leadership positions, is traditional doctrine in all Abrahamic faiths. You can find it in everything from orthodox Catholic dignity-of-women to evangelical "true woman" credos. If you don't think Mormonism fits into this category, read this Proclamation.

Now, there is no study that I could find quantifying a causal relationship between "X Religion" and "Y Sexist Boss or Politician." I also know there are liberal, progressive religious people and deeply conservative non-religious and countries with non-Abrahamic faith patriarchies. But, consider, for example, studies which reveal that exposure to "benevolent sexists," men who believe that their role is to be strong providers dealing with the corruption of the big, bad, dangerous world and women's roles as virtuous, upstanding nurturers in need of protection (the very definition of Complementarianism), wreaks all kinds of havoc on girls and women's success in the workplace.

Can we really separate the fact that we are the most religious country in the industrialized world from the fact that we also have the worst record of institutionalized support for women working outside of the home?

Motherhood is, in traditional, conservative religious parlance, the pure, morally-superior, zenith of women's dignity and achievement. It's why we can't stop our national obsession with ideal mothering. Coping with the demands and logistics of motherhood happens, by sheer coincidence of course, to be a major component of the problems women have in the workplace and second to gender, is the most influential factor in how much a person will make and how far they will climb the management ladder. The truth is however, in order to really deal with these issues, we have to stop talking about motherhood, and talk instead about parenthood. Out of 178 countries we are only one of three (Papua New Guinea and Swaziland... I kid you not) that has ZERO paid parental leave, which massively disproportionately affects working mothers. This also a significant impediment to women running for office (we rank 69th in the world for women's political representation). This week's Atlantic feature story, Why Women Still Can't Have it All addresses some of these issues. Yay motherhood and apple pie!

So, we have legitimate insights into the demonstrable effect that conservative, gender role traditionalists have on workplace equality. What is the possible effect of applying a correlating religious father-as-head-of-household family model (or voting for people who adhere to it) to governmental policy and the economy? What kind of leadership and representation do we want?

Consider Mr. Mitt Romney, who is now "one of the guys." I keep reading about Mr. Romney and Mormonism as well as about how "social issues" aren't important to the MMIE (Much More Important Economy), but haven't seen much that addresses the question of faith, gender, jobs and the economy together. What do you think his vision for America's women and their families is when you get down to the brass tacks of who gets jobs, who gets promotions, who gets paid fairly, who gets workplace support for balancing the demands of a modern life and economy?

He is the self-described epitome of the men studied in the cited and similar research and everything about his public and business life reveal the degree to which his domestic preferences adhere in his business and public practice. Nothing he has done suggests he can separate the two. I know that Mr. Romney has, contrary to many of his theocratic party peers, not claimed there is no separation of church and state. But, the "evanescent" effects on policy of his self-described religious beliefs makes that statement irrelevant in tangible, practical terms. His religiously wrought strengths, "work ethic, deep ties to the community, and particularly rigorous decision making" happen to have a serious downside for half the population and their families when you filter them through Complementarianism -- a foundational principle of his faith.

Does any doubt that Mitt Romney's domestic life and religious beliefs inform his policies about the economy, work, pay and gender? His supporters certainly don't. Even if you chose to artificially divorce his practice of faith from consideration of his thoughts, his public work record and his political policies demonstrate that he cannot: Needing "female translators", having an official Romney Key People organization chart filled with five men to every one woman (color code the job titles for fun); 15 years at Bain Capital when women appear to have made up only 10 percent of vice presidents at the firm; an inability to commit to something as straightforward as fair and equal pay. All of this, plus the fact that he is a lifelong rule-enforcer not challenger, strongly indicate that being able to empathize with people unlike him and separate his political actions from his personal lifestyle are super unlikely. But, these are, of course, the same things that make him appealing to others. I just don't know why undecided women voters (or men tied to them in some way) concerned about The Economy and with an interest in optimizing their financial well-being would vote this way.

This is just by way of illustration however. My criticism of the economic costs of the institutionalized perpetuation of religious Complementarianism isn't limited to Mormonism or Romney's practice of it. His religion, like orthodox practices of all the majority of the world's religions, is run by men who deem it appropriate to make decisions on behalf of women whose input they limit, repress and marginalize. It is for this reason that strict constructions of these religions, and the long cultural tail of their effects, should not be beyond criticism. By NOT openly discussing the influence and costs of religion on the economy and political and public policy we are privileging religion in seriously deleterious ways. It's a fabulist and destructive suggestion that considerations of the quality and pervasiveness of a political candidate's practice of faith should be off limits.