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Voices / Column

Seeing the world through the lens of gender

Elayne Clift ( writes about women, politics, and social issues.

Saxtons River

Recently, at a “Global Affairs Conference on Empowering Women for Health,” I was stunned:  Not only did “gender” never arise as a reason for disparities in access to health care in poor countries, all the data presented was based on males!

When I was called on in the question-and-answer session to address these obvious problems, I asked how many in the audience had noticed that five men were allowed to speak before I was invited to offer an observation.

 “That’s what happens when you look at the world through the lens of gender,” I said, adding, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to revisit the slides and presentation from that perspective?”

Several women jumped out of their seats in agreement.

* * *

When you look through the gender lens at what’s happening economically, politically, and socially, all kinds of issues emerge that don’t always garner the attention they deserve.

For example, the new Census Bureau report reveals that one in seven Americans is living in poverty, but where is the discussion of how this extraordinarily high number affects women differently from men?

Such sex-disaggregated data is deeply important in understanding how variables like wage disparities and employment opportunities affect women — often heads of household — in unique ways.

Or, we might ask, what percentage of the 51 million Americans reported to have no health insurance were women, and what does that mean for their children’s well-being, or for their own health status?

As one woman told The Washington Post when the Census Bureau report went public, “I’ve worked since I was 15 and now, for the first time, I don’t have a job and I can’t feed my family.”

That, in a nutshell, is “the feminization of poverty,” a phrase coined in recognition of the fact that here, just like in other countries, women are the poorest of the poor and therefore have a deeply vested interest in economic analysis and policy.

* * *

One of the reasons that women are poor, beyond unemployment and underemployment, is that the gender wage gap still prevails.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Studies, the median annual earnings for employed women last year was $36,278 compared with $47,127 for men, representing an earnings ratio of 77 percent. That means there was a gender wage gap of 23 percent.

For women of color, the numbers are even bleaker.

While white women earned about 75 cents for each dollar earned by white men, African-American women made only 62 cents for every dollar earned by white men.  Latina women earned only 53 cents.

With families more dependent than ever on women’s earnings, especially in communities of color, closing the gender wage gap is vitally important.

* * *

In the run-up to November elections, the focus is largely on the economy. Raising or cutting taxes takes center stage in ads, debates, and Sunday morning talk shows.

But what about the myriad political and social issues we should be talking about if we view the world through that gender lens?

For instance, the fact that so many of the far-right candidates — including women — who’ve won primaries are against abortion even in the case of rape or incest is rarely mentioned when those candidates are discussed or interviewed.

Nor is the need for decent child care or the ever-growing crisis in education or the increase in violence against women (often related to economic frustration).

Where are women’s concerns in the debates and discussions around public policy relating to national security and international conflict resolution?  Why does the issue of gender equality so seldom arise when foreign policy is the topic du jour?

And, for that matter, why hasn’t the United States ratified the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women or passed an Equal Rights Amendment?

* * *

Of course, the fact that a growing number of women, and men, are analyzing important issues through the gender lens at the tables of decision-making, here as well as in other countries, is a sign of continuing progress.

While not always of the same party or persuasion, and even though women are far from reaching parity in most parliaments worldwide, the fact that increasing numbers of savvy women are entering the public arena suggests slow but certain change in social and economic policy. 

But we cannot grow complacent, for there is still so much to be done and so many gains to be retained.

We must understand that women’s concerns, and their ways of looking at the world, not only matters but is critical to making life on this planet sustainable. That understanding remains vital to our common future.

A gendered perspective on modern life’s perils provides an opportunity for both men and women to prosper. Surely no one can deny wanting to be part of that win-win scenario.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #71 (Wednesday, October 13, 2010).

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