After the Jasmine conference last week, where there was much discussion of the social and psychological barriers to women's equal participation in the economy, I have been thinking about the spectrum of attitudes towards women in different societies.
At one end is the sort of paternalistic, or patronizing, consideration displayed by the old-fashioned English gentleman. The behaviour displayed includes opening doors for women, helping them with their coats, walking in front of them down the stairs, or behind them up the stairs, in case they fall, and walking on the side closer to the street so they don't get splashed by passing vehicles. The assumption behind these behaviours and others is that women are weak and vulnerable and deserve protection and assistance. Some of these specific behaviours may have arisen when women wore really unpractical clothing - or alternatively, they were able to adopt such clothing knowing that they would be given this sort of assistance and not expected to move as freely and confidently as men.
At the opposite pole is the macho attitude, where women exist to serve men. This approach is prevalent in societies that take for granted that men are superior, and women's inferiority is no reason to be considerate towards them. Men can comfortably expect women to take care of their needs.
It seems to me that it's easier to reach equality from the considerate but patronizing attitude than from the male superiority assumption. It seems that the assumption of male superiority can lead to either the sort of generous consideration displayed in the first type, or to contempt and exploitation, as in the second type of society. The generosity is probably why western societies have achieved greater equality, moving from protecting and respecting women to treating them more as equals, while the more traditional macho approaches are still deeply entrenched in large sectors of Israeli society, for example.
Here in Israel, I am aware that many men can express sexist opinions without fear of criticism (for example, regarding women drivers), and the emphasis on the importance of families does hold back many women's careers.
Personally, I try not to make this the focus of my attention, and just get on with my own life. Being self-employed means I don't have to deal with the stresses of the work place, with the potential for sexual harassment and the problem of unequal pay for males and females doing the same job.
It seems to me that people with full confidence in themselves and their place in the world are free to treat all others equally, with respect (unless this proves misplaced) and with consideration. The people who feel superior and therefore have to treat others (women, minorities or anyone different) with contempt are just compensating for deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. A man who feels superior to women just because he has an XY chromosome (like 49% of the population), rather than feeling fully confident of his own individual self, is missing something.
Ultimately, I would like to think that the individual differences between people are more important than their gender.