What feminist politics looks like in practice: responding to the Zika virus

Image provider: CDC/ James Gathany

I’ve been accused of being overly abstract (and irrelevant) when pointing out that the personal is, in fact, political. It’s one thing for thoughtful people who have many forms of privilege–being straight, white, male, among others–to discuss racism and sexism in theory-existing somewhere “out there”, but quite another when they are confronted with the very concrete manifestations in their personal lives and relationships.

So here’s an example of what I see as a very positive and constructive application of theory to practice: the feminist response to the Zika virus. I imagine women in the Americas (myself included) being completely perplexed, if not downright terrified, of the recommendations coming from governments to avoid or delay pregnancy–for up to two years in some cases. It’s one thing if you have access to high quality health care, as most people with means do. But a very different story if you don’t.

Access to contraceptives and safe, legal abortion is severely restricted in many of the countries affected by the Zika virus. Violence, including violence against women, can make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to avoid unprotected sex, and in turn, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (which the Zika virus is suspected of being). And any time states have taken it upon themselves to dictate whether and when to have children, the results have never been good for women. It’s a surefire recipe for abuse and human rights violations, such as coercive or forced sterilization, pregnancy, and termination as well as unsafe abortion.

And what of the right to become pregnant, to have positive pregnancy outcomes for both mother and child, and raise children in a healthy and safe environment? The situation with the Zika virus echoes what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, where parents and caregivers can’t even feed or bathe their children without potential devastating consequences of lead poisoning. The common denominator is that those most affected are poor and minorities, and it’s due to historical, systemic failures of societies to protect the rights and wellbeing of all people–not just the ones with privilege and money.

So back to feminism, this press release issued by the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network provides practical advice to governments on a human-rights based response to the Zika virus. Instead of issuing bizarre recommendations that would be difficult for any woman to implement, make sure women have access to comprehensive, high quality sexual and reproductive health care. Make sure we have access to services that will allow us to continue pregnancy if we so choose and the services and resources to address whatever health outcomes we and our children face. Get men involved–tell them to keep it in their pants if they’re worried about sexual transmission and microcephaly. And for God’s sake, stop controlling women’s sexuality and reproductive lives by criminalizing and restricting access to contraceptives and abortion.

It doesn’t make the Zika virus any less scary, but if governments–including the U.S.–took it upon themselves to follow these recommendations, it’d make it a lot easier to cope and make informed decisions about some of the most intimate aspects of your life. That’s what I call a practical application of feminist theory to real life.

– Alia

Women nabbed 77% of jobs growth…


…in January, data released Friday show.

Specifically, the U.S. economy added 151,000 jobs last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in a truly “eh” result. Women’s employment accounted for 117,000 of those jobs.

Of note, women have made up more than 50% of jobs growth in nine of the 12 months through January, BLS data show.


Ryan Murphy looks to level Hollywood playing field

Ryan Murphy, the creative force behind TV hits such as “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” is looking to level the playing field for directors, according to news reports.

He’s launching a foundation called “Half” that will aim for 50% of director slots on his shows to be “filled by women, people of color and members of the LGBT community,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In the U.S. women make up about one-third of employed producers and directors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These are well-compensated jobs, with a mean annual wage of more than $90,000, almost double an average of about $47,000 across all occupations, BLS says.



Insight Needed on Gender-Based Job Segregation


There’s an obvious and worthy goal of a new federal proposal to collect more wage data by gender and race: figuring out whether workers receive unfair pay.

Inequity harms employees, their families and undermines values that are core to many Americans. By requiring wage data from businesses with at least 100 employees, officials with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Friday they are looking to:

  • Identify ‘possible pay discrimination and assist employers in promoting equal pay’
  • ‘Help employers in conducting their own analysis of their pay practices’
  • ‘Use this pay data to assess complaints of discrimination, focus agency investigations, and identify existing pay disparities that may warrant further examination.’

The EEOC also touched on a more subtle, yet still key, goal to close the wage gap. The agency wants to gain ‘insight into pay disparities across industries and occupations,’ officials said.

Cutting occupational segregation is an important step to narrow the wage gap between men and women. That is, women need to increasingly enter well-paid jobs and industries to make as much as men. Currently, women dominate the most common low-wage occupations, such as childcare workers and home health aides.

A greater share of women working in higher-earning fields could help narrow the wage gap. Currently, women’s earnings are about 80% of men’s among full-time workers.

An employment environment that supports men and women throughout their lives — as children are born, family members require care and life evolves — would support equitable compensation. Providing paid parental leave to men and women, for example, would help workers balance demands from the office and families. An absence of gender-based penalties for attending to family matters — equally honoring men and women’s ambitions, natural desires and obligations — could boost opportunities and success for all workers.

Researchers with the NY Fed recently explored the pay gap between the sexes and found that early in their careers, there were earnings premiums for women in certain majors. But those premiums evaporated as workers approached their mid-career, perhaps due to discrimination or family-care responsibilities.


Most custodial parents don’t receive full payments


A fresh report from the U.S. Census Bureau offers a snapshot of child support in the U.S., finding:

  • A bit less than half of custodial-parent families have court orders or other financial agreements that obligated financial support from absent parents.
  • Almost 46% of custodial-parent families owed child support in 2013 received all due payments, up from 37% two decades earlier. See above chart.
  • Among custodial parents who received financial child support, the average monthly amount was $330 per month, almost 70% of the $480 due.

Cash isn’t the only support for kids

But cash isn’t the only way parents can help support kids. Last year the Journal of Marriage and Family took up the issue of “deadbeat dads,” or fathers who provide little or zero cash to support their kids. The study found some of these men do, in fact, offer valuable goods, such as clothing, gifts and food. Of note, while there are “deadbeat moms,” too, more than eight-in-10 of custodial parents are mothers, government data show.

According to the Census report, absent parents supplied non-cash support to almost 62% of custodial parents, offerings gifts, clothes, diapers, food, etc.


Low-income dads provided an average of $60 per month per child in non-cash goods, according to the study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. The authors interviewed more than 300 low-income noncustodial fathers in Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, and Charleston, S.C. between 1996 and 2003.

“I was really surprised by how much these disadvantaged guys, these truly marginally employed men, are putting all of this thought and what little resources they have into showing their children that they care,” said Kathryn Edin, a study co-author and sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University.

While non-cash support has its limitations, offering goods can provide non-custodial parents interaction with their kids.

“If fathers ‘come by’ on a routine basis to deliver the goods on which mothers rely, they can purchase regular access to the child,” the authors wrote.



Step it up, dudes…

I once read that economics is “politics in drag”—it bandies about as if it were a purely objective, value-neutral science, when in fact, it’s a vehicle for enacting deeply-held ideologies about what belongs in the public sphere—or not, the dogma of individual responsibility, and the role of collective institutions in facilitating social inclusion and equity. Or at least that’s what Dr. Nancy Folbre’s analysis of economics as a “masculine domain” means to me.

This is not to say that we should abandon the field. Quite the opposite, we need more women like Ruth and Dr. Folbre who can expertly bring “woman’s work” into the picture and make visible the productive value of and society’s collective responsibility for what has for so long been relegated to the private sphere and placed squarely upon the unpaid shoulders of women and girls.

But changing the field of economics, as with any institution, will require long-term, multi-faceted strategies both within and outside the discipline. We’re talking about challenging deeply held beliefs—not only within organizational and institutional cultures, but also at the very personal, individual level. Amen to Dr. Folbre’s assertion that “men’s reluctance to share the temporal responsibilities of family care” is a “major factor” for closing the wage gap.

But when most men in the U.S. (and not just economists) hold tightly to the belief that they do as much housework as their wives–even though data show that they don’t, we know we’re in for an uphill battle. If we women can’t convince our male partners that the unequal distribution of household labor affects our career and earning capacities (not to mention the tradeoffs that we disproportionately bear in terms of leisure time, according to none other than the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) imagine the potential resistance in the crusty corridors of the economic Old Boy’s Club.

In order to support more women in the field of economics, we need to also promote a broader dialogue about women’s equality—at home, in the workplace, and in society at large. Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch, as women activists, researchers, organizations and movements have spent decades getting care work on global political agendas like that of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), The World Bank, and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

But perhaps even more, we need dialogue that encourages us to surface and question our own assumptions and beliefs—about the gendered division of labor (among other things) and the ways that we—men and women both—intentionally and unintentionally benefit from and perpetuate it.




Gender labor divide shapes world


Women are underrepresented in the field of economics.

Some also seem to be not so interested in business and related topics. Anecdotally, almost 80% of my Twitter followers are men.

As a daughter of two economists, and a former data reporter for the Dow Jones publication MarketWatch, I’ve wondered:

  1. Why aren’t more women in economics?
  2. Why are men a disproportionately large share of consumers of news about business and finance?

Studying how scarce resources are distributed is of particular importance to women. A fresh report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows about one-in-four kids live in families with only one parent, and about five-in-six custodial parents are moms. Indeed, mothers are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinner for households.

And women’s earnings are typically a fraction of their male counterparts’. Check out this new chart from the Economic Policy Institute,  a Washington-based think tank, that illustrates how much less women make than men.


Bottom line: The distribution of cash and resources is paramount for U.S. women and their dependents, i.e. most of the nation’s population.

Economist Nancy Folbre, who has studied the economics of gender and family, among other topics, spoke with Woman’s Work this summer about the wage gap between men and women, why women are underrepresented in economics and men’s role in cutting inequity. She also touched on the possible impacts of a woman president and mandating paid parental leave.

To preface Dr. Folbre’s remarks, here’s a bit of background information:

  1. Women’s earnings are about 80% of men’s among full-time workers, according to the latest BLS data.
  2. After decades of a narrowing earnings gap between the sexes, progress has plateaued in recent years.
  3. Even though women are increasingly going to college, their wage premium evaporates as workers approach mid-career.
  4. Women make up the majority of the most common low-wage jobs.

Now, onto Dr. Folbre’s observations (the interview was edited for clarity and length).

Woman’s Work: What do you see as the No. 1 roadblock to closing the wage gap?

Folbre: The lack of support for family care – affordable daycare, paid family and sick leave, penalties for part-time employment. Part-time work involves a significant penalty in terms of both hourly pay and access to benefits.

But I would also add that men’s reluctance to share the temporal responsibilities of family care is also a major factor.

And discrimination against women remains significant — less explicit than it once was, but deeply embedded in social norms and expectations.

WW: Why are women so underrepresented in economics?

Folbre: Economics is very market-focused, and market work remains a masculine domain. Market logic emphasizes that consenting adults pursue their own self-interest and everybody is better off as a result.

But market logic doesn’t apply to care of dependents, a more traditionally feminine obligation. Children, the sick, and the frail elderly don’t fit the preconditions for consumer sovereignty in market exchange. Most care of dependents takes place outside the market. Women generally take more responsibility for this care than men do.

Economic theory doesn’t provide much insight into this—other than to suggest that women must simply have greater “preferences” for family care, or be more efficient at it.

Most economic theory takes altruistic preferences—or the lack of them—as a given, rather than asking how they are socially constructed or enforced.

Caring for a family member out of a sense of moral obligation is not an activity that can be reduced to market logic. So, I think that market logic is less consistent with women’s actual and anticipated experience than that of men.

The whole concept of concern for other people or interdependent utilities or obligations for other people, these are largely absent from the market paradigm. The textbook assumption is that participants in the market don’t care about other people, they have independent preferences. They are basically making decisions based on prices and income. It’s a very narrow, stripped down characterization. In some instances, it may be accurate. But a lot of the work that women, in particular, do doesn’t involve impersonal transactions.

We live in a world shaped by a moral division of labor that is highly gendered. It’s more acceptable for men than women to behave in purely self-interested ways.

WW: Do you think having a woman head the Federal Reserve could raise interest among women in joining economics?

Folbre: Yes. I think Janet Yellen is someone who’s willing to express concern about unemployment and social well-being, as well as economic growth. She seems both competent and kind. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a role model effect.

[Editor’s note: Heather Sarsons, a graduate student at Harvard, has studied gender promotion gaps and the difference in recognition for group work among economists, and recently found that there can be a penalty for women who co-author publications with men: “While women who solo-author everything have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man, women who co-author most of their work have a significantly lower probability of receiving tenure.”]

WW: If Congress mandates paid parental leave, will that cut employment?

Folbre: I don’t know. It’s possible that it might. If it did, the effect would be pretty small. A lot depends on who finances [the leave] – whether it’s financed through employee contributions or some other source.

When the question is framed in broad terms, it’s not clear who would be paying for paid family leave. Regardless of how it’s financed, employers are going to pay some costs, in terms of management costs, hiring replacements for workers on leave. On the other hand, they are going to get some big benefits in terms of reduced worker turnover and training costs.

How those two sides of the ledger compare probably [varies] from industry to industry.

WW: If Hillary Clinton or another woman becomes the next president, how great a step will that be for women to achieve political parity with men?

Folbre: I think it will probably be pretty great, but it’s hard to say. [Clinton] has promised to be more proactive about pay equity and childcare and family issues. By framing these issues as central issues, I do think she is having a positive impact.

But there is also the question of what kind of political environment she’ll be operating in. If you look at the Obama administration, there’s been a huge gap with what Obama could have accomplished with support from Congress and what has actually happened.

What’s going to happen about pay equity is going to depend on the outcomes of political elections at every level, including the state levels.