The NYT Issue on Women: “A Persuasive Argument”

Amanda Marcotte

Kristof and WuDunn persuasively argue that fighting for women’s equality around the world, especially in developing countries, is the moral issue of our time.

The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development.  Rewire is featuring commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad. 

Previous commentaries include on by Edwin Okong’o of New America Media, Yifat Susskind of Madre, and Carol Jenkins of the Women’s Media Center.

A compilation of the pieces posted on RH Reailty Check and on other blogs will be published on Friday, September 11th. 

The New York Times Magazine created the splash it intended
to with its special issue titled, with an unfortunate chivalric take, “Saving
the World’s Women,” an issue centered around an article by Nicholas Kristof and
Sheryl WuDunn titled "The
Women’s Crusade"
, where they persuasively argued that fighting for
women’s equality around the world, especially in developing countries, is the
moral issue of our time.  The
article and the issue in general promoted WuDunn and Kristof’s new book "Half
the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide"
.  The book might seem like a daunting
read, as Kristof and WuDunn describe the various evils of patriarchy and
misogyny worldwide—women trapped in sex slavery, killed for perceived slights
against a family’s honor, left to die in childbirth, thrown out to be eaten by
wild animals because they have fistulas that stink, prevented from getting an
education because of neglect and poverty, starved by families that let the male
members have their fill before the female members can eat, beaten by fathers
and husbands for the slightest transgression—but Kristof and WuDunn manage to
make it a bearable and quick read. 
(Except for the parts about female genital mutilation.   That topic always sends this squeamish reader towards Cute Overload for a brain cleanser.)

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How did they make it so readable?  Kristof and WuDunn understand the power of hope.  When most of us read about the tragic
loss of life, limb, and freedom that many women endure when trapped in a sexist
system, we can’t get past despairing to consider such a light and fluffy thing
as hope. But Kristof and WuDunn sprinkle the book with stories of women who
were given (or who, in some cases, snatched) an opportunity to go into business
or get an education, and were then able to buy themselves a measure of
freedom.  We read about women who
dedicated their lives to educating girls, repairing fistulas, providing decent
maternity care, helping shut down brothels that peddle enslaved women, and
offer microloans to other women so they can lift themselves out of
poverty.  Is it really too much to
believe that women can gain a measure of equality worldwide, they implicitly
ask.  After all, women in Western
nations fought for and received something within putting range of equality.  China, too, has seen remarkable gains
for women in status and freedom. 
If it’s possible in these places, it’s possible everywhere.

My main problem with the book was that Kristof and WuDunn
are so intent on making women’s lives around the world an issue past ideology
that they end up giving the American right wing more credit than they deserve
when it comes to believing women are full human beings who deserve to be free
and healthy.  For instance, even
though they detail how the American right, with a big assist from the Vatican,
was able to pressure the Bush administration to cut funding for contraceptive
services around the world while pouring money into abstinence-only boondoggles,
Kristof and WuDunn seem determined to ignore how the anti-abortion movement is
anti-contraception, too.  Instead,
they argue that the American right and left should come together and agree that
women should have better access to contraception, because of the obvious
benefits in terms of educational attainment and lowered maternal mortality and
morbidity.  Well, of course, we
should come together on this.  Or,
to put it more bluntly, of course the right-wingers should drop their
objections to giving women rights and freedom and come over to the left on
these issues.  They shouldn’t just
do it with contraception—legal, safe abortion has the same benefits for
women’s health and lives.  But no
one is stupid enough to suggest that the American right will support safe
abortion, so why is it still acceptable to pretend they’re not fighting against
contraception as well?

In the grand scheme of things, this objection is actually a
smaller one than you’d think. 
Outside of flattering the American right for being humanists when
they’re not, Kristof and WuDunn do a pretty good job of identifying the enemy
of women as sexism, in the West and otherwise.  It’s sexism that makes it a big deal when a couple of
journalists are kidnapped, but relegates the routine kidnapping and
imprisonment of women into brothels as a mere “women’s issue” to be shoved into
the back pages.   It’s sexism
when death and injury from basic reproductive functions like childbirth can
barely capture the world’s attention. 
It’s sexism when people say that prostitution will always be with us,
and so shrug off the need to free women in sex slavery.  (Not that there aren’t many willing
prostitutes, of course, but the fact that there are women who consensually
provide the service makes it even harder to argue that sex slavery is
inevitable.)  It’s sexism when
women’s abilities and talents are ignored, especially in nations where women
represent an untapped resource that could do wonders to help move the economy
along, if they were allowed.  As
Kristof and WuDunn note, it’s sexism to treat women as nothing more than “slaves
and baubles” instead of people in their own right with much more to contribute
to the world than the use of their vaginas.

And it’s great to read a book that’s brimming with ideas for
solutions, especially when those ideas are reflected in the real world.  Kristof and WuDunn emphasize especially
the need for women to take leadership roles in their own countries and
cultures, and not just because of the threat of cultural imperialism, but also
because it’s more practical.  Who
better knows where aid needs to go and what obstacles you might face than
someone who has lived her whole life in that culture?  I dare anyone reading this book not to walk away wanting to
help, even if just a little bit by giving money to Kiva. 
Kristof and WuDunn believe in the world’s women, and when you’re done
with this book, you’ll almost surely share their enthusiasm.     

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.