Gender Balance Here and Abroad

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The Women’s March on Washington. Women’s History Month. International Women’s Day. A Day Without a Woman. There is currently a great deal going on by women and our allies in the quest for gender equality, rights and fairness in leadership roles, education, home, and work. 

This then is a good time to take stock of how American women compare with women around the world. Let us look at this with the goal of learning from countries whose quality-of-life measures often surpass ours.

A quote from Julie Ward, Labor Member of the European Parliament for the North West of England, in a Huffington Post article from one year ago is a helpful introduction:

“Gender equality is one of the core values of the European Union, and this was enshrined in its founding treaties. Throughout its history, the EU has been a progressive force advancing women’s rights, non-discrimination, as well as LGBTI rights.

“From its foundation, the EU pushed for employers to pay men and women equal wages for equal work, paid maternity and paternity leave. EU laws on return to work have meant that a woman’s job must be held open so she can return to work without loss of status or pay. Many older women will remember the days when getting pregnant meant losing your job.”

We cannot say this in any way, shape or form in the United States of America. If we examine three significant areas of life vis-à-vis gender balance – women in government, women in the workforce, and life expectancy – we can learn some important lessons.

Women in government. In the current, 115th United States Congress, women remain a minority. In the House of Representatives, women hold just 83 (19.1%) of the 435 seats. In the Senate, that number is 21% of the 100 seats.

In contrast, women hold elected office at much higher rates in many other nations:

Iceland: 47.6%

Sweden: 43.6%

Finland: 42%

Norway: 39.6%

Spain: 39.1%

Belgium: 38%

Netherlands: 38%

Denmark: 37.4%

Germany: 37%

Women in the workforce.  The US lags considerably behind most EU nations. When women are in the workforce, they exert important influence, often have crucial discretionary income that helps their families, and increase their presence in most occupations, often changing them for the better. Quoting from a February 2015 article in the Globalist:

“Of the 34 OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] economies, the 14 countries with the highest female labor participation rates in mid-2014 were all in Europe. In all of these economies — including Europe’s largest, Germany — at least 80% of women were actively involved in the labor force.

“Outside of Europe, 15th-ranked Canada has the highest female labor participation rate. Back in 1990, Canada’s female labor participation rate, at 76%, was only slightly higher than the U.S. rate of 74%. But while the U.S. rate is again 74% (after peaking at 77% in 1999), Canada’s female labor participation rate is 82% —  eight percentage points higher than in 1990.

“The generosity of labor policies (such as paid maternity leave) is only one explanation for the higher female labor participation rates in Europe and Canada. Another explanation is the higher rates of part-time work for women in these countries.

“At 82%, the Netherlands has a very high female labor participation rate. But 61% of the Dutch women who were working were employed part-time, according to OECD data for 2012. By comparison, only 18% of U.S. working women are employed part-time.”

In addition, “European nations are far more likely to offer extended paid maternity leave (as well as protections for women to return to their jobs after having children), government subsidized day care and other policies designed to keep women in the workforce.”

Life expectancy. As we noted earlier, life expectancy in the US is behind that of many of our peer nations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that our average life expectancy in the US is the highest it’s ever been: 78.8 years. However, many advanced nations have surpassed this level for a long time (2014 statistics): 83 years in Switzerland, 82 in Sweden and Norway, and 81 in the Netherlands. When it comes to women in particular, we see the same trend: life expectancy for US women is only 81.2. The comparable rates for women elsewhere are as follows: Switzerland, 85.3; Sweden, 84; Norway, 83.7; and the Netherlands, 83.6.

While we could cite other areas where American women have a long way to go to catch up to some of our fellow women elsewhere, here we will examine briefly why we might be so far behind and what we might do to live up to the optimistic goals of the current women’s movement.

Religious, especially Christian, Fundamentalism. While this is a large topic that we might take up later, it is important to note here, briefly, that the US has a history of Christian Fundamentalism that Europe and other nations generally do not have. Biblical literalism among many Christian groups in the US has resulted in the long-held belief, based on certain Bible passages and interpretations, that women are or should be subservient to men.  (There is certainly a history of misogyny in almost all other nations of the world, but the history of tent revivals, Pentecostalism, anti-evolutionism, and other trends are particularly American for the most part.) As I have argued elsewhere, this anti-woman stance is not warranted according to most mainstream New Testament scholarship. Throwing off the stigma that a certain brand of Christianity has against women – by being attentive to facts, evidence and scholarship – would help to move women’s lot forward.

Our reticence to legislate. In contrast to most Western democracies, we Americans are loath to legislate equality; there is a longstanding conservative attitude here that is averse to government intervention. However, it seems to me that we need to wake up to the fact that companies, individuals and other entities will often, generally speaking, do the wrong thing unless that thing is prohibited legally (and the law is enforced).   Congress must often enact legislation in response to actions that endangers people’s lives or well-being, which is why people on the left are now arguing against dismantling the EPA and other government agencies: it is the EPA and other government agencies that are empowered to enforce laws that are passed to protect us all. It is an unfortunate but sad fact of life that it has to happen this way, but we simply cannot rely on good intentions in our hyper-capitalistic environment where money consistently takes precedence over the well-being of citizens.

Philosophical differences – communal vs. individual. As we saw earlier, the US has a long history of an individualistic ethos that has both advantages and disadvantages. This most likely stems from our heritage of colonialism, conquest and westward expansion. It took a certain strong, independent personality type for oppressed European emigrants in the 16th and 17th centuries to cross the ocean and establish colonies on our shores; it took that same spunk to keep venturing westward under extremely harsh conditions to settle a vast continent. (While we can be proud of myriad examples of courage and self-sacrifice in our history, it should go without saying that there is no excuse for slavery, the extermination of native peoples, mass discrimination and other evils that also served to create our nation.) We can argue, in contrast, that Europeans who did not leave to colonize the American continent may not have as much “bootstraps” mentality in their DNA as their cousins who did brave the Atlantic; rather, especially since World War II, Europeans have developed and even perfected a more communal mentality and ethos. When social problems arise, these nations and their citizens are more likely to pursue communal solutions than those based on the individual, the profit motive or the advantage to the business community.

If we truly want to improve gender equality in the United States, then, we would do well to learn from our peer nations that are far ahead of us on many quality-of-life measures.