Guest post by Eve Pearce
What Price Are We Really Paying for ‘Equality’?
Any woman who feels like it has been an exhausting but worthwhile struggle to the top, any young female graduate who dreams of making her mark in a still male-dominated corporate world, probably felt like kicking her Louboutins against the desk the day Carla Bruni-Sarkozi deemed feminism officially dead. At University, many of us flirted with the radical feminism of Andrea Dworkin, revelled in the idea that current standards of female beauty might be a deliberately constructed myth, and glorified in Germaine Greer’s assertion that it was never too late to reinvent oneself. Our experience taught us that while there seemed to be many more exciting, diverging roads to trod than were available to our mothers, there were, and still are, so many soapboxes worth standing on. To be told that “women don’t need to be feminists in this generation”, is nothing short of being told to eat cake while queueing up for the dole.
The Rise of Women and Human Development
Governmental recognition of the far-reaching positive effects of gender equality is not a new thing; various studies, including those published by the UN Development Programme, indicate that there is an inexorable link between gender inequality and poor human development outcomes. Gender equity, on the other hand, is closely related to the achievement of numerous developmental goals, including health, education, social and economic rights fulfilment and growth. Females in positions of political power inspire increased schooling for girls, higher levels of female education are linked to reduced child mortality rates and the strengthening of women’s bargaining power in the home has positive effects on children’s health; even lower fertility rates (associated with higher literacy and educational levels) promote economic growth.
Two Steps Back
In the United States, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibited sex-based wage discrimination between men and women yet 50 years after its ratification, women’s earnings had increased a mere 18.5 per cent (to 77.4 per cent of men’s earnings). Significant gender pay gaps are present across the globe and indeed, in the United States, more women may be enrolled in tertiary institutions than men, yet inequality in employment and income is still a palpable reality. The daily news is replete with women protesting the failure to implement equality laws (women in Pakistan have been waiting six years), taking on inordinate amounts of work to justify their place in the corporate world or fighting against the repeal of valuable legislation such as Wisconsin’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act of 2009.
One Step Forward
The March 26, 2012 edition of Time Magazine sought to turn established notions upside down, its front cover proclaiming: “The Richer Sex – Women are overtaking men as America’s breadwinners. Why that’s good for everyone”. Promising figures were presented: almost 40 per cent of wives earn higher salaries than their husbands, women make up 60 per cent of students in tertiary institutions and they are the proud holders of most PhDs and Masters degrees. Young women, Time claimed, have a particularly promising future, with single, childless female workers in their 20s earning more than their male counterparts. Still, even this upbeat article acknowledged a few inconvenient truths: in the full-time job sector, women still earn only 81 per cent of a man’s weekly median wage and the number of female managers has risen by only three per cent in the last 20 years! Men still dominate the science and engineering sectors in the US, with a male-to-female ratio of 73:27. The higher up the corporate ladder we climb, the less likely we are to bump into other women. In the year 2011, only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies were run by women. In the US Congress, women hold a mere 17 seats out of 100.
Striving for Equality: Paying a Hefty Price
If true equality is still a goal to be pursued, the price women have paid for what they have achieved should not be forgotten: women in many parts of the world are literally sacrificing their lives for modest improvements in working conditions. In the US, the Health sector is alarmed by the much slower rate that women’s lifespans are improving when compared to men’s. Indeed, in many US counties, women are living less than they were 20 years ago. The main culprits are mainly preventable habits such as smoking, obesity and alcohol, all of which are related to stress, one of the dubious ‘privileges’ of trying to balance work and family life.
Young, working mothers are particularly under fire in times of economic recession, with childcare cuts and inadequate lengths of maternity leave (paid and unpaid) causing anguish, guilt and inordinate amounts of stress.
Additionally, there are hidden practices in workplaces that lie beyond numeric detection. As Germaine Greer reminds us, “Pay is one thing, share of the workload is another. The unpaid work is still all being done by women.”
Reversal of Fortune
Proclaiming victory prematurely in the gender gap war is the first step towards further eradication of working women’s rights. In the UK, Women’s Minister Maria Miller recently expressed her distaste for mandatory quotas for women on boards of directors. The voluntary approach works best, she says, because in the UK, 44 per cent of all board appointments in the past six months have been women. As The Guardian’s Larry Elliott points out, however, “Not one woman executive director has been appointed in the past six months, with the real power wielded by men, as it always has been.”
Not only is reverse discrimination receiving a backlash from politicians and legislators; the attempt to equalise men and women under the umbrella of the law can take quite extreme (and, one would argue, illogical) turns, as is the case of the recent European Court of Justice Ruling, which prohibits insurance companies from taking gender into account when making their calculations. Women, who previously benefited from much cheaper car insurance premiums than men due to lower accident rates, now have to pay higher costs, while men are paying slightly less than they were. Women aged under 21 are liable to be most hard-hit because of significantly higher premiums, as will those working in particular industries (such as sales) or those living at a long distance from metropolitan areas, since public transport is often substandard and local jobs are scarce. Women’s life insurance premiums will also rise by around 15 per cent, once again an illogical development considering the fact we (still) live longer than our male counterparts. Men aren’t too content about the ruling, either, since they are now on the losing end of the bargain when it comes to annuities: women’s rates are expected to rise, and men’s to fall, since a man’s lower life expectancy can no longer be taken into the equation.
Back to Reality
As we make our way into the new millennium it is clear that women are in immeasurable debt to those who paved the way in the fight for equality. It is vital that feminism never be seen as passé owing to new phenomena like the proliferation of ultra-egalitarian measures that merely scratch the surface of gender inequity, a problem that goes beyond work and extends to a woman’s health, family relationships and life. Pretending that women and men no longer have to face highly disparate challenges every day, does nothing more than pave the road to gender inequity with good intentions.
BPW International: A Giant Leap for Womankind
History has spoken loud and clear: if gender equality is ever to be achieved, the spark that ignites the flame, will have to be lit by women. It is with this aim that the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW International) was founded in 1930, with courage and determination. Now comprising affiliates in 95 countries, BPW International is giving women the tools they need to be leaders, movers and shakers, through educational campaigns, congresses and representation in the United Nations. BPW International initiatives have given over 45,000 women the economic power they now wield with pride, supporting them in everything from work placement to business start-ups and creating nurturing, equal opportunity work environments.
BPW International is also a powerful forum for women to network and identify the many barriers that still need to be knocked down; efforts such as Equal Pay Day, for instance, calculate the exact number of extra days per year women need to work to obtain the same wages earned by men. In its consultative capacity in the United Nations, BPW International fights against the most pressing issues women have to face in the workforce, including violence and inequitable pay. From BPW International’s numerous affiliates in countries around the world including Africa, Asia, the USA and European countries, enterprising women are launching campaigns, hosting conferences and tapping into the enormous and often unrealised potential of women in business and politics.
BPW International’s networking events are vital, dynamic forums where women on the rise can make important contacts and learn about the vision of others. Important events like the Annual Leadership Summit invite women to share ideas with peers, engage in lively debates and discussions and even challenge their current ways of thinking, since change is a vital step on the road to progress.