Working on women´s participation globally means I am often put in the difficult position of defending the status of women in the US. While I am proud to defend Americans, where we have made progress, I am also the first to harp on the gaping holes. The fact that the US for the most part has a base of anti-discrmination laws in place, where women and men can openly call themselves feminists (a “bad” word in all countries I work in), in addition to the growing political reality that women can make or break elections (hence the 12 point gender gap between Obama and Romney in the Presidential campaign), means there is more movement than the 18.3% representation of women in The Congress indicates. However, much, much more needs to be done to elect more women as well as ensure equality through policy. And at at time when Republicans are talking about women as if it is the 1960s, it is refreshing to see Obama moving forward on the Equal Pay Act, finally!!
This is important. And today, April 8th, is the day we recognize as Equal Pay Day, the symbolic date when women’s wages catch up to men’s from the previous year. The sad reality is that even college educated women in the US still make 7% less than their male counterparts on average, all things being equal. If you want to know more about how those numbers are crunched, read the American Association of University Women recent report on the wage gap.
A significant walk away point for me, working in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Kosovo, Albania and even Saudi Arabia, is that nothing happens that is sustainable, without the proper amount of political will coming from, you guessed it, women. Sure, laws can be instituted to deal with gender discrminiation, especially with the carrot of EU association agreements in certain countries, but those laws are meaningless unless women truly accept that it is their job to make sure those laws are implemented. It is their job to demand a discussion about why women are discriminated against. It is their job to ask why media treats women as entertainment rather than sources of information, why politicians (male and female) scoff at temporary mechanisms like quotas in election law to normalize the role of women, why girls growing up in countries where they have equal access to education are at significant risk of being victims of domestic violence or sex trafficking.
If women don´t demand change (of course in a way that is cultural relevant for their country) nothing changes. It is very simple. This is the universal lesson I take from doing this work in the US and abroad: the demand for changing the status quo creates the energy and political will where policies and laws can follow, but not necessarily in the reverse order. First and foremost, women have to want a change to take place, be willing to speak up and demand it, and be smart about how they build a movement that has real political capital behind it. There is no shortage of policy models and example laws to reduce gender discrimination, but these are not worth the paper they are written on unless women are at the forefront building support and making them meaningful in action.
In that light, I love the strategies AAUW is utilizing, to push Congress to act, broaden the demand through social media networks, mobilize women to congratulate Obama in order to spur and embolden more action, as well as feature the real stories of women impacted by pay discrimination so that we understand the issue from a personal narrative. All of these components are the fundamental tools of grassroots activism that can pave the way toward progress, and turns out, can be replicated all across the world.
So, I am watching you American women….and the male and female politicians who women vote for…let´s not forget about the midterm election this November! I stand ready to defend and willing to criticize. Let´s show we can be a model, not another example of a failed effort to do right by women in a country where arguably the barriers are less difficult to overcome.