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Cancel the Party: Here’s a Killjoy Memo for U.S. Women

ENGLISH Mart 31, 2016
Hold off on the fireworks for International Women’s Day. Put a cap on that box of sparklers.
Instead of celebrating progress on March 8, we in the U. S. have to ask why we fare so poorly compared to many other countries.
The gender wage gap in the U.S. is still a chasm. Fifty-five years after JFK signed the landmark equal pay bill, we still rank a dismal 65th in the world out of 142 countries, according to the World Economic Forum.
In one year, 2014, for instance, the U.S. only narrowed its wage gap by one percentage point to 66 percent, “meaning that women earn about two-thirds of what men earn for similar work according to the perception of business leaders,” World Economic Forum Economist Saadia Zahidi told CNN.
Surprisingly, some of the world’s poorest countries do far better than the U.S. Burundi, where 4-in-5 people live below the poverty line, tops the list when it comes to equal pay. Females in this small African nation earn 83 percent of salaries of men in the same jobs.
Meanwhile, in the richest country in the world—U.S.—men out earn women in virtually every occupation, whether it’s male- or female-dominated. Among elementary and middle-school teachers, for example, the Women’s Policy Research Center reports that women’s median earnings were $921 per week in 2014, while men’s were $1,128. In other words, these female teachers earn about 82 percent of male counterparts. Among retail salespeople it’s even worse. She earns about 64 percent of what he earns per week: $436 versus $678.
Back of the Pack
When it comes to paid family leave, the U.S. is at the back of the pack. We are the only industrialized country to offer no paid family or sick leave. (The Family and Medical Leave Act gives certain employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave.)
This dismal picture extends to maternity leave as well. Of the 185 countries and territories for which the U.N. had data, Fortune notes that all but three provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave. Those three exceptions to the rule? Oman, Papua New Guinea, and — you guessed it — the United States. Many countries are even raising the amount of money new parents receive while on leave and extending the duration of their time “off.”
In the U.S., a few states and some cities are tossing out crumbs to new parents. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order in 2015 giving 20,000 city employees six weeks of fully paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Four states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington — and the District of Columbia offer some form of paid leave to new parents.
“At best, these plans cover only three months of a child’s life,” Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings, told The New York Times. “It doesn’t take three months to raise a child. Paid leave is a drop in the bucket. It’s a very important drop, but it’s a very empty bucket.”
Compare U.S, offerings to Sweden, where parents receive 480 days leave – including 390 at around 80 percent of their salary – for each child. And in Britain, parents can share 12 months of leave after the birth of a child.
Are you depressed enough yet? Here’s more. In many counties, reproductive health services are expanding. More than 30 countries have amended their laws to expand access to safe and legal abortion services in the last 20 years. As a result, there have been significantly reduced rates of maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion, according to a report from the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Renewed Attacks
Meanwhile, in the U.S., abortion services and even contraception are under renewed attack. More and more restrictions have already hampered the right to legal abortion—closing clinics, instituting waiting periods and putting undue burdens on women’s health care facilities.
A major case now being argued before the Supreme Court comes from Texas, where state law demands that clinics be almost as well equipped as ambulatory surgical centers, which have large staffs and expensive overhead. Also, clinic doctors must have admitting privileges at large nearby hospitals. If this law is declared constitutional, there will be only 10 clinics in the huge state of Texas to serve the 5.4 million women of reproductive age in the state.
Is a right really a right if nobody can access it? No, writes Judge Myron H. Thompson of the United States District Court in Alabama. He says that the Alabama law requiring abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges is unconstitutional. It would put three of the state’s five abortion clinics out of business, which would mean “severe and even, for some women, insurmountable obstacles” to abortion in the state.
Even contraception remains under attack. More than 99 percent of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method, reports the Guttmacher Institute. Yet—amazingly– family planning remains under siege. The Supreme Court ruled that “closely held corporations” such as Hobby Lobby, a chain of retail arts and crafts stores based in Oklahoma City, do not have to insure forms of birth control if they object to it on moral grounds.
The Obama administration engineered a compromise. A company that objects to covering contraception in its health plan can write a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services stating its objection. A third-party insurer will provide birth control coverage to the company’s female employees at no additional cost to the company. But companies can simply refuse–as Hobby Lobby actually did—leaving their female employees uninsured for their legal birth control needs.
The U.S. is also sliding backwards in another area of women’s health – maternal health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the maternal death rate here in 2011 rose to 17.8 per 100,000 live births; up from 7.7 deaths in 1997. This dismal trend means the U.S. joins a tiny handful of nations to see a rise in maternal mortality over the past decade. The others include Afghanistan, South Sudan and El Salvador, according to a study published in 2014 by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
The problem is even worse for black women. Between 2006 and 2010, the death rate among black women in the U.S. related to childbirth and pregnancy was more than three times that of whites.
So much for the hurrahs over International Women’s Day. In too many areas, we seem to be sliding backwards or simply inching forward.
Maybe next year we will have more to celebrate. But don’t bet the ranch on this prospect.
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