on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day…

Forgive me for being cynical, but for all the “progress” for women’s rights that is being lauded today, I see a lot of ways in which we are missing the mark, both globally and at home in the US.

When I was living abroad in Korea, I starting thinking eh, things for women in the US aren’t thaaaat bad, right?  At home, I usually don’t entertain questions of why I am not married at 24 (and I was 22/23 at the time I was fielding said questions).  I can apply for jobs knowing that it is my resume being scrutinized rather than a requisite attached photograph, and I am not being told to get plastic surgery to land a job in my field of choice.  I went to a good university for more than just my MRS degree (and, anyway, it would appear that I have failed to achieve a “joint-degree”).  30 “Korean age” (28 or 29) is not a death sentence for my career and any hopes of starting a family or being an acceptable member of society.  I have been given access to information that helps me to make informed choices regarding my own sexual health, and finally, at 24, feel comfortable navigating a tricky playing field in which men often exercise far more control than women– my decisions really are my decisions.

But for all of that, there are the buts.  Since returning to the States, I have been bombarded by the vitriolic rhetoric our politicians are spitting.  It seems that many lawmakers in this country have made it their goal to vehemently oppose women’s rights through agendas that are decidedly anti-reproductive health.  Regardless of your stance on abortion, it is legal in this country.  Research indicates that abortion rates are no lower in countries where the procedure is illegal– the difference is that women seek unsafe methods to terminate pregnancy.  Globally, about 13% of maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions.  And this seems pretty obvious, but unwanted pregnancies occur when family planning services are either not available, not being utilized, or not being advocated.  Family planning is simply “the conscious effort of couples of individuals to plan for and attain their desired number of children and to regulate the spacing and timing of their births.”  This doesn’t necessarily mean the use of modern contraception; it could simply mean a conversation between two individuals to decide whether fertility is a goal or not.  The reality is that in much of the world these conversations do not occur.

Sexual education matters.  Attitudes about gender matter.  In Korea, I was baffled by how little young adults knew about sex.  Health knowledge in general seemed to be dominated by rumors and old wives tales.  Modern contraceptives are readily available in Korea, but sometimes I had to remind myself of that fact.  In fact, birth control pills are often available over the counter for very little money (about $5), but relatively few sexually active women use them due to misleading information from doctors and hearsay from friends, and the prevailing attitude that sex is a man’s realm, and therefore women should not be involved in decisions about when to use birth control.  As a result, an alarming number of abortions are performed every year in secret clinics (as abortion is illegal).  In 2005, there were over 340,000 abortions in South Korea, while there were 476,000 live births, suggesting that roughly 2 in 5 Korean pregnancies result in termination (if those numbers are not gross underestimates due to the secretive nature of illegal procedures).  The situation in South Korea is simply one of many anecdotes regarding the interplay of misinformation, the effect of gender and culture, and restrictive reproductive health legislation.  Why then do certain groups in the United States want to deny access to family planning services (many of which are already unaffordable for a lot of people) and encourage school curricula that pay insufficient attention to sexual and reproductive health?

In class of mine a little while back, I saw the following statistic:

“Men between the ages of 15 and 44 face no single threat to their health and lives that is comparable to maternal death and disability.”
-UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health

The reality is, that most Americans don’t view pregnancy as a huge threat to our health.  If it is planned, childbirth is an occasion for celebration in “developed” countries, but globally about 1,000 women die per day from complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth.  99% of these deaths occur in “developing” countries, and almost all are preventable.  Difficult childbirth can also leave women with additional health concerns, such as anemia, infertility, abdominal pain, and fistula (which often results in the woman being shunned from the household).

If this were a “men’s issue,” would it be handled differently?

I tend to shy away from arguments that might seem to vilify men in this realm, because while there are a lot of upsetting gendered reasons why women’s health is often neglected globally, men are an important piece of the puzzle and should be utilized rather than alienated in the women’s movement.  I think that too often feminism gets equated with thinking that women are better than men or that men need to be knocked down a few pegs, when in reality most people who consider themselves feminists are simply looking to level the playing field and certainly are not looking to trample all over men.  I find that I sometimes shy away from identifying as such because it carries such different (and somewhat extreme) connotations for some people.  Do you give a shit about reproductive health and fair pay?  OK, cool.  Me, too.

While women’s health is a crucial part of the equality puzzle, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “work,” so why not take a look at US women in the workplace?  (Granted, the theme is really the “pathway to decent work for women” rather than “equality in the workforce,” but as this is something that I do think the US can be somewhat proud of, I want to look at what comes after the initial foray into the workforce: equality in the workforce).  Like I mentioned before, I feel fortunate to be a woman working in the US.  It probably is not great that my justification for this is simply a comparison with a typical 24 year-old woman in Afghanistan or even a comparison with one in S. Korea (one of the so-called most developed countries).  But at least I’ve been educated, legally can work in the same fields as my male counterparts, and have not been married off against my will or forced to get pregnant before I could make my mark in the workplace.  So, win?  Oh, wait, but I’ll likely never make as much money as my male counterparts, even though there are, like, laws about that shit.  Hello, glass ceiling.  But how bad could it really be?

As I am going into a sector that works closely with the medical field, let’s look at how women fare there. The New York Times ran an article accompanied by a really cool interactive graphic last year titled “Why Is Her Paycheck Smaller?”  I would encourage everyone to check it out– if nothing else, it is just a super-fun interactive graph (woo!).  Female physicians and surgeons make about 40% less, while medical scientists make 37% less.  Although some of the gap can be explained by differences in specialties (for instance more men going into certain high-paying surgical specialties than, say, pediatrics or family and community medicine), that is not enough to explain a 40% gap.  40%.  Whoa.  Another study looked at starting salaries for physicians, so as not to run into problems trying to compare across specialities or later in life when men and women might opt for different types of benefits.  In 2008, female physicians’ starting salaries were $17,000 less than starting salaries for male physicians.  In 1999, that difference was $3,600.  Is that what progress looks like?  And when we explain such staggering differences by saying that women are choosing different types of benefits (like more time off, fewer hours, etc. because they have families and certain roles they are expected to play within them), does it matter that this is often a reflection of a constrained choice?

A question that is often asked is whether the quest for women’s rights is a zero-sum game.  Can women attain gender equality without men relinquishing some of the power and privilege they currently enjoy?  Is it reasonable to ask men to make such sacrifices?

What do you think?  Is gender equity/equality a zero-sum game?  Are we making sufficient progress?

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