Commentary Abortion

The Key to Culture Change Is Coming Straight From the Heart

Kate Cockrill

The work to end abortion stigma must be constructed from the inside out.

In my research about stigma around abortion and other reproductive experiences, I’m often struck with how “in my head” I can be about such sensitive and personal issues. I love geeking out on sociological and psychological theory: exploring social norms, cultural taboos, prejudice, and stigma across multiple levels of culture. The intellectual side of me always wonders: How did our culture get here? And how can we change? However, at a recent staff retreat, a colleague asked us to reflect on what motivates us to do culture change and I found myself telling a new group of people about my father.

Growing up, I was very close to my dad. We both loved singing, throwing a football, cracking jokes, and watching movies. He introduced me to great music, including Heart, Queen, The Doors, The Beatles, Carly Simon, and Stevie Nicks. He had a mischievous sense of humor. For example, when my older brother and I would misbehave by lying or leaving our wet towels on the floor, my dad would tell us the story of our long lost siblings “Loretta” and “Edgar” who had done just the same things before they mysteriously disappeared. He took us to countless dollar movies and encouraged us to sing with him at a local piano bar. He pushed me to be an independent, social, and fearless person. For many people I know, these details will seem incongruent with the fact that my father is an evangelical Christian minister.

Although Christianity was the foundation of my upbringing, I don’t think I became aware that my father was opposed to abortion until high school. By this time, things had really changed. My parents divorced, my father was not preaching full-time, but was teaching English at a local high school. On one “Divorced Dad Weekend,” our conversation turned to the issue of abortion and, as it turned out, my father was very strongly opposed. I was honestly surprised by his feelings, but our conversation was respectful. If anything, it was just another experience with my dad where, despite my age, I felt encouraged to be an independent-minded and outspoken person.

Just after college, I began working at the National Abortion Federation on their hotline helping women seek abortion services. Remembering the conversation we’d had in high school, I was worried about sharing the news of my new job with my father. Even telling him the name of the organization I worked for made me uneasy. A few months in, I worked up the nerve to speak with my dad about my work. He was driving me back to the Metro after a dinner at his house and I went for it. I told him about the women who called our hotline and how stressed they were about meeting the needs of their families. I told him about how incredibly expensive it was to have an abortion and how far women had to travel to get one. I told him I was honored to be there for women at such a difficult time and that I was proud of what I was doing to help.

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Dad listened thoughtfully, but surprised me with his response. He was still opposed to abortion but he offered that it was one of the great “moral dilemmas” of our time. He said that many families will have people on either side and that we must love each other despite our differences of opinion. I remember him looking out the windshield of the car as he spoke about how differences on the issue of abortion reminded him of families who were divided by the Civil War. As we hugged good-bye I wondered, uneasily, which side he was identifying with in that metaphor.

A few years later, when I began my master of public health (MPH) program at UC Berkeley, my father called me on the phone saying he wanted to talk to me about something important. He explained that he was struggling with something. He told me he could not be proud of my graduate work because I was attending a liberal university and intended to apply my education to the spread of abortion throughout the world. I asked him what happened to his belief in maintaining relationship across conflict and “the great moral dilemma” speech. He said, with a great deal of sadness, “What would you do if your child was a Nazi?” Shocked, I tried to explain that I was interested in researching women’s experiences with abortion, experiences which happen whether he and I are in conflict about it or not. He said, “I would rather you have become a stripper.”

Almost ten years have come and gone since that phone call, and I can count on one hand the conversations my father and I have had since then. We met briefly and awkwardly in a public park after the birth of my first daughter, who is now 5 years old. He has never met or seen my second daughter who turned 3 this past April. With every Christmas, birthday, and Father’s Day that goes by, I feel a tug of guilt for not reaching out and simultaneously the stomach dropping sensation of rejection. The other day, I was intervening in a fight between my daughters over a doll. “You know,” I said mischievously. “You used to have two sisters who fought over dolls like this … and one day they mysteriously disappeared.” Of course they loved it; it broke up their fight, and they demanded to know more about their long-lost sisters “Laverne” and “Shirley,” and all the naughty things they had done.  Despite the pain of the last ten years of conflict and rejection, I still wanted to call my dad.

After speaking my story to our small group of staff, I realized something. I have a lot of compassion for my father in this story. I know that he’s tortured by my decision to make a career focusing on abortion. I know that he wants to love me and have a relationship with me, my husband, and our children. I also have compassion for myself. I believe I am doing what is right according to my own values. I also love my father, but I have decided not to sacrifice my career for that relationship. Knowing that I can’t change my father or myself, I have turned my attention to changing something else: the culture.

I want to live in a world where people who hold different values and beliefs from one another can still experience love, connection, and belonging.

The intensity of the culture war around abortion creates oceans of stories like mine. I’ve spoken to abortion providers who are more concerned with the love and acceptance from their parents than the daily picketing outside their clinic. I’ve spoken with women who keep their abortions completely secret rather than putting a parent through the difficulty of knowing their daughter is a “sinner.” Ash Beckham reflects on the universality of being closeted about our experiences in her TED Talk, saying:

Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone that you just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your 5-year-old that you’re getting a divorce? There is no harder. There is just hard.

The truth is that the many of us find our motivation for culture change in our own personal experiences. Luckily we don’t have to divide ourselves in half to make change happen. More and more, research is finding that long-term attitude and behavior change doesn’t come from our heads, it comes from opening our hearts, acknowledging hurt, and being in touch with our own vulnerability. My relationship with my dad helps me to empathize with anyone who has shared an abortion experience with a family member, only to be dehumanized and rejected. By exploring my own vulnerability I improve my capacity for empathy. In the end, culture change can’t be delivered to us only through social marketing or social media. It won’t be motivated by other people’s experiences. Instead, the long-term change we seek will happen by exploring our own hurt places and addressing our own habits and behaviors when we’re confronted with stigma and prejudice. The work to end abortion stigma must be constructed from the inside out.

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.

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.”

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

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“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.