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The Race for Gender Equality

Once more, Iceland has shown that it is the best place in the world to be female. In 2018, Iceland just became the first country in the world to make it illegal to pay men more than women. First in the Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum for the past nine years, Iceland has consolidated its position as the pioneer of gender equality by legally requiring equal pay for equal work to men and women. Under the new legislation, private companies and government agencies employing at least 25 people are required to obtain a government certification of their equal pay programmes, and those who do not prove pay parity will face fines.

Compared to Iceland, the rest of the world would easily be at the bottom of the class in Gender Equality. Contrary to the shared belief that society has progressed in the past years, and while it certainly has, we are actually going backwards. According to the Gender Gap Report 2017, for the first time in more than ten years of improvement there has been a small widening of the gender gap. Compared to an average gap of 31.7 percent in 2016, there is currently a gender gap of 32 percent that still needs to be closed worldwide to achieve universal gender equality and, on current trends, the overall global gender gap can be closed in exactly 100 years, compared to 83 years in 2016. What contributed most to the widening of the gender gap in the past year is the lack of equal economic participation and political representation for men and women. In 2016 women only made 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Still in 2016, only 22.8 percent of all national parliamentarians were women, and only 15 out of 193 UN member state could count on a female leader to rule the country. The lyrics of ‘Run the World (Girls)’ by Beyoncé have never seem so far from becoming reality.

Here the comparison between Iceland and the rest of the world is not meant to prove that every country should follow the same example of Iceland (even if they totally should) nor to start a debate about the political and cultural motives that might explain the lack of governmental policies on gender equality in each country. Rather, what we should do (especially you, dear reader) is to ask ourselves why we came to this and why in our society it is still accepted that men should be treated better than women.

We often use biology to explain the privileges that men have. It is undeniable that there are many biological differences between men and women and it is of course true that men are in general physically stronger than women. However, research continues to prove that the brains of men and women are not really that different and that there is no average difference in intelligence between the two, if we exclude the intelligence, or lack thereof, of Donald Trump displayed in his latest tweets (yes, Donald, debating about how much bigger your nuclear button is will certainly help you prevent a nuclear war with North Korea). The idea that women should earn less than their equally competent and skilled male counterparts because of the belief that they are ‘scientifically’ less intelligent and less ambitious and that they ‘do not get it’ as men do, is nonsense.

The concept that gender constitutes a valid reason for treating men and women differently is the product of a patriarchal and male-dominated society that prevailed throughout history. Men put themselves in a position of power and saw women taking care of children and tending to the household. It is undoubtedly true that society has extremely changed in the last one hundred years and that women in the western world have achieved most of what they fought for: the right to seek an education, to own money and property, to choose whom to marry, to divorce, to vote, to be elected, and to lead. Nevertheless, the deep cultural structures legitimating women’s exclusion have not yet changed.

When a woman is paid only a fraction of what a man received for the same job, it is impossible to ignore the gender context. Gender roles and the gender division of labour within the family continue to impact women’s work. Research indicates a negative relationship between children and women’s wages, known as the motherhood wage penalty. This penalty could be attributed to the company’s anticipating that motherhood may cause a woman to leave her occupation or alter her productivity, while there is no such penalty imposed on a man that reaches the stage of fatherhood. Evidence also indicates that women are more likely to quit their jobs or exit the labour market for family-related reasons, while men are more likely to quit for job-related reasons. The difference in the treatment of men and women in the job market continues to prove how society still expects women rather than men to quit their job, leave behind their dreams, stay home and take care of the children for no other reason than the fact that they are women and they are expected to do so.

But the gender gap is not as simple as saying that men and women who are doing the same job are paid differently (although that is part of the story too). It is also because women and men have different jobs that are paid differently. The majority of teachers, nurses, secretaries and health workers are female, and these female-dominated industries tend to be much lower paid than industries that are numerically dominated by men such as finance and technology. The main issue is not that women are paid less because they chose to become a nurse, and, as a nurse, they enjoy a lower income. It is that nurses are in the first place paid less than other male-dominated professions. The essential question that we need to ask ourselves in this case is why we give greater value to some jobs more than others when they all contribute equally to society.

The debate on gender equality seems to have lost its driving force in recent years. It appears as if people have come to terms with the unfair treatment of women on the job market, with the considerable income difference and the discrimination against women that become mothers. That is simply how it is – seems to be common sense. Wrong, yes, but common. Various attempts to remove obstacles for women have not succeeded and no concrete efforts have been made to break up the deep cultural structures about gender. What seems to be missing is determination. The determination of both men and women to recognise the issue, to speak up and to make change happen.

Emancipation is not about hating men, it is not about forcing men to do the laundry and women to take manual jobs, and it is certainly not about reducing the opportunities enjoyed by men. Emancipation is about equality in opportunities. Women should enjoy the same opportunities as their male counterparts and gender should not and must not be the reason for treating men and women differently. It is plainly unjust to keep women out from the same opportunities enjoyed by men, by whatever unconscious means we do so, and we simply cannot afford without women’s expertise, whether it is in technology, economy or science. When women and girls are not integrated, the community loses out on skills, ideas and perspectives that are critical for addressing global challenges and improving the society as a whole. The old structures legitimating women’s discrimination need to be changed.

Put that Beyoncé song on. The race for gender equality is far from over. It has just begun.

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