Speaking of Women's Rights: 09/09

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Real Choices and Happiness

The blogs are a-buzz about a study that shows that women are less happy than they were 40 years ago, compared with men, and that as women get older, they get sadder. There’s always a certain danger to generalizing on such matters, as it often leads to harmful stereotyping. These alarmist headlines – Women Are More and More Unhappy! – smack of age-old attempts to tie women to mental illness, depression, hysteria, and the like (a connection demonstrated by the very term “hysteria” – derived from the word “uterus”).

Moreover, at a surface level, these findings seem a paradox, as one paper’s title suggests (“The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness”). Don’t women have more options today than 40 years ago? Don’t we get wiser as we get older?

The author who stirred up this recent firestorm dismisses each of the following as possible causes for women’s declining happiness: (1) longer working hours, (2) gender stereotyping, and (3) the “second shift” (the unpaid domestic work) – because, in short, all of these have improved for women over the years. While somewhat coy about his actual theory (no doubt so that you will buy his book), he does point to the inherent stressfulness of having choices as part of the cause, along with the premium our culture places on youth and looks.

I’m intrigued by this suggestion that choice – specifically more choices – breeds unhappiness. Also intriguing is the data that “[a]cross the happiness data, the one thing in life that will make you less happy is having children.” (Not really surprisingly, the author does also note that there are very few people who would tell her they wish they hadn’t had kids.) Of course, the word "choice" is particularly fraught with meaning in the context of discussing family planning.

Regardless of how stressful it can be to make choices, the availability of meaningful choices surely must make a difference. The source study includes a representative sample of men and women of all ages, education levels, income levels, and marital status. But even these characteristics (education, income, marital status) are the effects of choices – choices that are not necessarily freely made or equally available to all.

What would this study show if all women were empowered to make, and supported in making, informed choices? If, instead of trying simply to curb teen pregnancy, we gave young women the knowledge, access and power to plan their families in the ways that work best for them (as the Latina Institute for Reproductive Health suggests)? If we didn’t have the power dynamics that result in domestic violence? If we had schools and workplaces that were free of discrimination and harassment? If senior women could age gracefully in financial security?

Then all women might truly be able to exercise that most cherished democratic right: the pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

“We are all the same human beings”

Whether it’s the debate over health care reform, gay rights legislation, or the age old battle over abortion, the need for compassion toward one another is something that’s been weighing on my heart as of late. That’s why, when I heard the following comments from the Dalai Lama’s International Freedom Award acceptance speech, I smiled from ear to ear.

“Whether you believe this religion or that religion, we are all the same human beings,” said the Dalai Lama. “We all come from the same mother. That creates the basis for compassion.”

You may disagree vehemently with someone’s views. But the name-calling, accusations, and violence that seem to have reached a deafening decibel on so many issues do nobody any good. Thank you Dalai Lama for reminding us what being on this earth is really about.

Oh, and he called himself a feminist! “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” he said to a cheering crowd.

Favorite person of the week.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Women in the “Mancession” – The Gender Poverty Gap

One of the media’s latest catchy terms – “mancession” (see here and here) – describes the “unusual” fact that in this recession, a disproportionate number of recent job losses have been experienced by men. Of course, this by no means is any cause for celebration for women. (Except to the extent that some men may be more available to attend to that “honey-do” list – and on a more serious note, that gender stereotypes relating to domestic work may make some permanent shifts.)

In reality, even if fewer women have lost jobs in the past year than men, the latest Census Bureau figures also show that women are still 35% more likely to be poor than men, with a 2008 poverty rate of 13% compared to 9.6% for men. There’s no doubt we still have reason to be worried – and to focus on – economic justice for women. Consider these facts:

· Women’s earnings are increasingly important for families. Of families with children, 20% (1 in 5) are headed by working single mothers, and nearly half (46.6%) of families with children are supported by two working parents (as opposed to dual parent families with male breadwinners, or single fathers). (Figures are from this report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.)

· The unemployment rate for single mothers is higher than for either married men or women - 12.2% in August 2009 (compared to an overall 9.6% national unemployment rate).

· Women still make just 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. There is much research on why this is, but the wage gap is at least partly attributable to the fact that women’s jobs are concentrated in lower-paid industries, including retail, education, health care, and nonprofits.

· Women’s jobs also tend not to be family-sustaining jobs – not only because they tend to be lower paid, but also because they lack benefits such as health care, sick days, and retirement benefits.

· The poverty rate would be even higher if it reflected the reality for many working families and women and accounted for expenditures on child care, which make income unavailable for other basic needs. In 2002, child care cost an average of $412 per month.

· In many states, women are still ineligible for unemployment benefits if the reason that they leave work is because of a personal reason, rather than a work-related reason – for example, if their child care falls through or if a family member becomes ill and needs their care.

In these times of economic uncertainty, many feel thankful simply to have a job. But it’s even more important in these times to ensure that women workers aren’t disadvantaged – in seeking jobs, while on the job, or if they leave a job.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Big thanks!

Legal Voice staffers are self-reliant. We like to think we can do everything on our own. But even we will admit that when volunteers help us out, it’s like putting gas in a Prius: a little goes a long way.

Which means getting a lot of help is like stepping onto a rocketship. And right now we’re on the moon.

Thank you, thank you, thank you a million times to the generous, quick, fun, smart volunteers from Nordstrom who came to our office last Friday. For their United Way Day of Caring project, they assembled our fall fundraising mailing. They put together 2,500 letters – each with a handwritten note – in just under 5 hours.

We’re grateful to have gotten our great group through United Way of King County – check with your local United Way for details on how to get involved. If you’re in the Seattle area, you are always welcome to volunteer at Legal Voice.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Thorn On the Road To Health Care Reform

Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Landov

In the wake of President Obama’s address to Congress on the need for change in our health care system, analysis of his speech has dominated the web. Google “Obama health care speech” and you will find 47,600,000 results. It seems that everyone has a view on some aspect of the proposed legislation to extend health care to all Americans.

One of the more contentious pieces of the health care reform puzzle is the issue of abortion. Though not explicitly mentioned in any proposed legislation, those on both sides of the abortion debate have been attempting to uncover just what will happen if the bill passes. Will abortion be funded in a public option plan? Will it be covered by insurance companies who are receiving federal funds? Will women whose insurance companies currently cover abortion – about 86% according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute - suddenly find themselves without coverage that they had before (therefore breaking Obama’s promise that those who are happy with their insurance coverage will get to keep it)?

This is what Obama had to say about the issue on Wednesday night: "One more misunderstanding I want to clear up -- under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place." Abortion foes called Obama’s words a “political hoax,” and held that his assertion that abortion would be paid for out of patient premiums and not government funding “a distinction without a difference.” At the same time, the pro-choice community takes the wording of the house bill to mean a continuation of the Hyde Amendment, which forbids that Medicaid pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life. With politicians trying to tip toe around this thorny issue, it seems to be nearly impossible to pin down exactly how a government-run health care plan would treat abortion.

Apparently the swirling tides of confusion around this debate have gotten to some folks: Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) recently baffled the pro-choice community by co-opting their language in an effort to voice her opposition to a government-run health care system. "That's why people need to continue to go to the town halls, continue to melt the phone lines of their liberal members of Congress," said Bachmann, "and let them know, under no certain circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pumping at work - a punishable offense?

Can an employer lawfully fire a worker for taking breaks to pump breastmilk? The Ohio Supreme Court recently provoked boycotts of the company totes / Isotoner (the maker of gloves, umbrellas, etc.) when it answered “yes.” How exactly did the court reach this decision, and what does it mean for working women?

In a remarkably terse opinion, the majority noted that the employee, LaNisa Allen, admitted that she had taken unauthorized breaks to express milk, and that her supervisor told her she was fired for failing to “follow directions.” The directions being, she could pump once, on her lunch break. In the bathroom, by the way – even though many, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend against that (“Breastfeeding employees should never be expected to express milk in a restroom! Restrooms are unsanitary….).

Finding no evidence that the employer’s reason – Ms. Allen failed to follow directions – was a pretext (legalese for made-up excuse) for discrimination, the court expressly sidestepped the big issue, stating it was not addressing whether discrimination due to lactation is covered by Ohio’s anti-discrimination law.

The result was that the trial court’s decision dismissing Ms. Allen’s claims was upheld. And this was the “reasoning” of the trial court: “Allen’s condition of lactating was not a condition relating to pregnancy but rather a condition related to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding discrimination does not constitute gender discrimination.”

Everyone, altogether now: “Huh?”

It’s always fun to watch as judges duke it out in their written opinions. In this case, in addition to that very short, unconvincing majority opinion, there were no less than four additional opinions, for a total of five (and this court has only seven justices).

The other judges all disagreed with the majority - and each other - on various points, but in a nutshell, here is some of the alternative analysis they suggested: (1) The statute prohibits discrimination based on sex. (2) The statute (both Ohio and its federal counterpart, Title VII) defines “because of sex” to include claims based on pregnancy, or pregnancy- or childbirth-related conditions. (3) Lactation (milk production) is a bodily function triggered by hormones released after childbirth.

Further, (4) a work rule or policy that places restrictions on employees based on their sex, or pregnancy, or pregnancy- or childbirth-related condition, is discriminatory. And finally (and at this point, we’re down to just the one dissenting judge), (5) if other employees were allowed to take unscheduled restroom breaks without seeking a supervisor’s permission, then firing Ms. Allen for taking unscheduled restroom breaks to pump milk was unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately for Ms. Allen, the majority did not sign on to that complete line of reasoning. Bottom line: the court's majority decided the company did not break the law by firing Ms. Allen.

The good news – and there is some – is that, as mentioned above, the majority did not actually rule on whether lactation is covered by the anti-discrimination statute; it found that in this case, there wasn't enough evidence for the claim to proceed to trial. Also, this ruling is limited to Ohio; there are still many other state courts, and federal courts, that haven’t addressed this issue.

On the other hand, this case spotlights the fact that many workplaces lack adequate support for breastfeeding workers – despite the proven benefits to both newborn and maternal health. Further, low-income women are more likely to lack both breaks to express milk and appropriate facilities to do so (as noted in this report on improving employment security for pregnant women and new mothers).

Unlike the Ohio Supreme Court’s reasoning, this much is very clear: We need better workplace protections so that women who face family responsibilities are not disadvantaged at work. In case you were wondering how far exactly the U.S. lags in workplace protections for working women, check out this list of other countries – including Burundi, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe – in which women workers have protected breaks for breastfeeding.

There has indeed been some progress in the U.S. on this issue - breastfeeding women in most states cannot be prosecuted for public indecency, and some states explicitly prohibit discrimination based on breastfeeding in public accommodations (such as swimming pools, stores, or restaurants) (read about new Washington legislation here). But the workplace, of course, is really where the rubber hits the road in terms of women's economic advancement and security.

After all, as no less than Bill Gates has said, responding to a question about how Saudi Arabia could become a top competitive economy, to an audience segregated by sex, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top.’”

Hear, hear.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dancing around sterotypes

Kari Brunson switched careers recently. The way that she’s being portrayed in the media hints at the way men’s jobs vs. women’s jobs are stereotypically perceived.

Brunson, until recently, was a ballerina with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. She made a bit of a splash when she pursued her interest in cooking by taking an unpaid position in the kitchen at a Seattle restaurant, and an even bigger one when she quit her dancing gig to cook full time.
Take a look at how she was photographed at different stages of this process.

March 2008 – still a dancer

(Mike Urban / seattlepi.com)

It’s a cute photo, of course – it’s flattering, as is the accompanying interview. But the gimmick doesn’t do justice to her considerable culinary interest and talent.

It suggests something like, “Isn’t she cute? She’s a ballerina who likes to cook – what a neat hobby! I thought ballerinas didn’t eat anything. She’s so tiny that she fits inside that giant pot! ” The takeaway – this photo is a joke, not intended to make the viewer take Brunson very seriously.

(By the way, being a ballerina? NOT EASY. Anyone who can do this has got to be in incredible physical condition.)

September 2009 – now a chef

(Joshua Trujillo / seattlepi.com)

Another flattering portrait, yes, but the tone of it is totally different. She looks serious and professional here – like a “real” chef.

When Brunson was primarily affiliated with professional ballet – a field very much dominated by women – she was photographed as a darling dilettante, lounging around in her cookware. And now that she’s primarily affiliated with the restaurant business – a field dominated by men – the portrait is suddenly all business.

The gender stereotyping dynamic in stories about Brunson is subtle -- like, say, a hint of cumin in your ratatouille -- but it’s definitely in there.