5 Things We Need to Tip the Balance for Women’s Equality
It’s International Woman’s Day again. How shall we mark it?
Are we making progress? Yes, of course we are. Do we have a long way to go? You bet we do. But before we start taking stock of the state of women in 2014, let’s get our context clear.
We’re not going to talk much about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (author of the controversial book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead) two icons for a segment of working “professional” women.
Sandberg’s “social movement” Lean In has generated a (healthy) but often contentious debate among women who have greater access to economic and social resources than the average working woman whose median salary in the U.S. was $37,791 in 2012. (Compared to men’s $49,398)
Dissecting the Lean In ethos in her excellent article in Dissent, author Kate Losse writes, “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept career demands.”
In her entertaining “rebuttal” article, Recline!, Georgetown law professor and foreign policy analyst Rosa Brooks writes, “Ladies, if we want to rule the world, or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions – we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us. We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”
As Brooks rightly points out, most women, especially those with children are still expected to work the “second shift” at home, since women still do far more childcare and housework than men.
The problem with much of the analysis on women’s empowerment or “equalization” is that most is focused on a narrow demographic of wealthier, well-educated women whose daily livelihood, rights and safety are often taken for granted. Mainstream discussions about work are mostly defined by opinion-making elites with emphasis on “glass ceilings” and male dominated boardrooms. There is little recognition that the majority of female jobs: domestic, home care, retail services and other “contingent” work are “undervalued, virtually unregulated and precarious.”
As Laurie Penny of the New Statesman writes, “While we all worry about the glass ceiling there are millions of women standing in the basement – and the basement is flooding”
On this anniversary of International Women’s Day, I’m urging that we all start thinking about the broader challenges most women are facing today. Truth is we’re all not in the same boat. Our economic and cultural divides are enormous. Women’s struggles and aspirations in 2014 shouldn’t simply be geared to reaching parity with men in professional life, but to raise the bar for all women. Our understanding of the issues all women face has to deepen if we’re going to move forward together.
Western media continues to dominate the discussion, provide the role models and define the meaning. This has to shift. There’s still a rigid division between women whose focus is on equal opportunity and pay and those who struggle daily with unsafe workplaces and blatant sexual harassment.
The unacceptable treatment of the mostly female workforce in places like Bangladesh should be the cause of all women who promote workplace equality. Not simply because they toil for pitiful wages making the shirts on our back, but because all work is worthy and women with access to any power need to stand in for those with less.
While class divides have always separated workers, the author of Trickle Down Feminism,Sarah Jaffe notes that traditional women’s work – cleaning, cooking and caring – has been devalued by the society over time. And as Ai-Jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance states, “All work is gendered.”
It’s important to remind ourselves that the prevailing emphasis in today’s discussion of women’s status is measured by the collective belief that everyone should aspire to achievements in corporate life. While corporate role-models like Sandberg coach us to work – longer, harder and smarter – to reach the pinnacle of patriarchic success, women at the “bottom” continue to lose ground without their help. According to Jaffe, “As we debate the travails of some of the world’s most privileged women, most women are up against the wall.”
What’s it Going to Take?
Every inch of ground women gain has value. But as women’s rights pioneer Gloria Steinem famously said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
Here are 5 Tipping Point Issues Essential for Women’s Rights
- Pay Equity. The Good News. The gender pay gap for women in the U.S. working in technology is closing; thirteen U.S. states have increased their minimum wage and the trend continues (this is critical for women who are the majority of low-wage workers) and news from Latin America is encouraging. There, rising education levels and falling fertility rates have expanded women’s economic opportunities. The increased participation of women in the economy has reduced poverty levels by 30% and bolstered economic security for households. The Bad News. In the U.S. The Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced in eight congressional sessions was voted down again in 2013. The law would close loopholes and allow workers to share salary information. With women’s pay still lagging behind men’s in nearly all sectors, this legislation is critical in enforcing pay parity for women.
- Reproductive Freedom. Regardless of one’s personal or religious beliefs, women cannot advance without having full domain over their bodies. An intensely volatile issue, women’s reproductive choice is still not guaranteed and regressing in places like the U.S. and Spain.It’s the reality that in many states across the U.S. nearly two dozen laws were passed in 2013 alone denying women access to vital reproductive health care. In some states, even contraceptive rights have been challenged.
- Ending Violence Against Women. Chilling. Horrendous. Shocking. Do the research and you will be appalled by the global statistics of violence against women. Women cannot take part as full partners under the threat of rape, assault and harassment. According to the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim speaking on Gender Equality, the most common form of violence against women globally is in the hands of their husbands. Worldwide, almost one-third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced violence. In a stunning new report, half of all women in the EU, report being the victims of sexual and physical violence since they were 15 years old. The majority did not report the crime.
- Eliminating Sexist Images in Media. Is it me or was 2013 the year that women accelerated their attack on the nauseating, pervasive sexist images of women in every form of media? Let’s face it, the media reeks of sexism. The Huffington Post seems obsessed with women’s wardrobe malfunctions, who gained and lost the most weight, who’s had a facelift and what every celebrity wore to every event. The is-this-going-to-take forever good news is that there has been pushback on the “red” carpet from “badass” Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, controversy over the common practice of photo shopping less than perfect body “flaws,” and heck – there’s even a normal Barbie doll in the works.
- Establishing Real Work-Life Balance. It’s become fashionable to scoff at the idea of work-life balance. It’s not possible, some say. The message from the Lean In movement seems to encourage spending more, not less, time at work. For women working several part-time jobs or juggling child care with their life partners, the idea of work-life balance seems fanciful. But balancing work and life – for both genders – may be our greatest calling in cultures that suffer from sleep deprivation, chronic anxiety and a range of stress-related diseases. Low wages, inflexible hours, poor or no workplace policies to guarantee sick pay or maternal leave are part of the equation. Mindsets are another. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review showed that no matter how much power female executives accrue or how much lip service male executives publicly pay, family issues are still seen as a female problem.
So on this International Women’s Day, we can declare that we’re making progress in the long, upward climb towards safe, healthy workplaces and access to equal opportunity for all. But the progress is painfully slow; too many women are still suffering and left behind. In the 21st century, every boardroom, factory and day-care center is local and global. Our frame of mind about women’s progress must get bigger and more inclusive. We must believe, as author Virginia Wolff did, that, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants