Women make up approximately half of the world population, and even though on many areas of the globe they have “come a long way” (as the 1970s-era cigarette commercial boasted), they still have a long way to go. The United Nations’ 2015-2016 report on women’s economic empowerment stresses that while women have made progress the world over, there is still a lot of work to be done on many fronts before women achieve what the UN report authors describe as “substantive equality.” (See the UNWomen.org site for more details.) And renowned philanthropist Melinda Gates has recently homed in on a big gender inequality issue: unpaid labor, of which women the world over perform the lion’s – or perhaps more accurately the lioness’s – share.
While the type of unpaid labor that is widely considered “woman’s work” varies from country to country, and is more physically arduous in Third World than First World countries, the result is the same the world over: it ends up robbing women of their potential, noted Gates in an interview. And it has an impact not only on individual women and their families but also on the larger economy. Gates wrote in her recent report that if women participated in their respective economies at the same levels as men, global GDP could increase by 12 percent. Anyone who wonders why that percentage seems low, considering that women make up half the population, should realize that there are numerous non-labor-related factors such as materials, utilities, and transportation costs that make up the GDP.
In under-developed countries where the gender gap is most pronounced, merely providing readily-accessible sources of clean water would have a significant impact, since women in those regions spend an inordinate amount of time walking to the closest source and carrying the heavy burden back to the home. The same applies to energy sources, since it is typically the women in Third-World countries who are responsible for gathering firewood or dung to be burned to heat the space or prepare meals.
“First-World” problems are still problems
Apart from the gender disparity in unpaid labor, women in developed countries arguably have it easier in many ways than those in undeveloped countries. Yet they have their own stresses and challenges. While they may not be fighting for survival basics such as clean drinking water (notwithstanding certain notorious areas such as Flint, Michigan), many are struggling financially. Their problems may be “First-World” but they are still problems to be dealt with.
In these developed nations, the solution lies more in a shift in attitudes, both in the home and the workplace. Beyond equal pay for equal work, a more balanced distribution of household responsibilities such as routine chores, meal preparation, and care giving would leave women saddled with a workload that is more equitable to that of their male partners.
Over the past several years, various studies have pointed to an increase in women using payday loans. Research in 2012 indicated that in the US, women were more likely to take out “desperation” payday loans than men, and a study released in early 2016 showed that the number of women in Australia getting short-term payday loans has increased by 110 percent over the past decade. This increase, which is likely mirrored in other countries, is an indication that women are feeling increased financial pressures, be they from lower pay, having to hold down multiple jobs and still being unable to make ends meet, and particularly in the case of women who are heads of single-parent households, being solely responsible for handling potentially expensive emergencies. Obviously, women in such situations are more readily exploited by predatory lenders.
This is by no means intended as a screed against payday loans, which despite some bad press aren’t always a bad choice. Especially in countries where regulators have halted some of the worst practices, a payday loan can, if handled responsibly, be a reasonable option for customers with poor or no credit and a need for quick cash.
But the fact that many women are relying on these short-term loans to make ends meet is problematic, and is symptomatic of larger problems. While not all of women’s financial challenges can be completely separated from factors that cause headaches for men too – most notably, the economic meltdown, the generally weak recovery, and the ongoing erosion of the middle class – gender disparity, in opportunities as well as income, remains a significant factor.
The good news is that opportunities for women to achieve financial independence do exist, and there are numerous resources and support networks to help women achieve their goals.
After millennia in which women were regarded as second-class citizens at best and chattel at worst, a long-overdue effort to raise their status to equal that of their male counterparts is occurring. While some countries are doing a better job than others, that progress will continue, and spread even to the most backward thinking cultures. And a great deal of that progress, as well as responsibility for continuing the march toward equality, has been – and remains – in the hands of the women themselves.
There do remain obstacles in the way, but those obstacles won’t remove themselves, and it women should not expect males to take full responsibility for “giving” women the autonomy they seek and deserve. In some cases, women are enjoying increased fairness, aided by a number of laws that clearly call for equal treatment.
While some of the remaining problems pertain primarily to women in the developed world, individual autonomy remains an important goal for women the world over. Certainly women in the developed world can (and should) help women in the developing world achieve autonomy. They may not have Melinda Gates’ billions, but every women can do her part. But she can only do so from a position of strength; if she is still struggling for her own financial survival, she may not have a great deal of time and energy – much less money – left to devote to help “those less fortunate.” For this and many other reasons, every woman, from Third-World village to modern metropolis, should make it a point to empower herself, so that she can help not only her own family, but can also bring to the fore the importance of attitudes that will ultimately help the women themselves, as well as the men who share the culture in which the women live.