women

Equal Pay for Equal Work

Four decade ago, the women of Iceland decided to call for a “day off”. On 24 October 1975, 90 percent of women in Iceland, in both urban and rural communities, did not go to their paid jobs or do housework or childcare at home. They refused to work to raise awareness that women at the time earned over 40% less than men. “As a result, many industries shut down for the day,” writes libcom.org:

Newspapers were not printed since the vast majority of typesetters were women and there was no telephone service. Many schools were either closed or partially closed as the majority of teachers were women.

Flights were cancelled as flight attendants did not come to work and bank branches had to be staffed by executives as tellers took the day off.

Fish factories were also closed, with many nurseries and shops also shut or at reduced capacity.

That sunny day would become an annual tradition in Iceland known as “Women’s Day Off”. The rally in Reykjavik’s Downtown Square gathered 25,000 women and was the largest of more than 20 to take place throughout the country. It was a moment that changed the way women were seen in the country and helped put Iceland at the forefront of the fight for equality.

Five years later, during the summer of 1980, the people of Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, to be their president. Vigdis was Europe’s first female president and the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. Vigdis went on to hold the position for 16 years – years that set Iceland on course to become known as “the world’s most feminist country”. Vigdis insists she would never have been president had it not been for the 1975 protest. “What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,” she says. “It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.” By uniting women from all social and political backgrounds, the day of action in 1975 was able to bring the issues of unpaid care work and wage inequality to national (and ultimately international) attention. The movement carried on the tradition British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst foresaw decades earlier: “We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Pankhurst and other suffragettes, during what is now referred to as the “first wave” of feminism, pushed governments around the world to allow women the right to vote, starting with New Zealand in 1893. Women in Australia got the vote in 1902, followed by Finland in 1906. Iceland was next, in 1915. The 1910s also saw Norway (1913), Soviet Russia (1917), Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland (all 1918), and Czechoslovakia (1919) do the same. Suffrage in US and Hungary came in 1920. The UK saw full voting rights for women later in 1928, following limited suffrage from 1918. Switzerland was one of the last countries in the world to allow women to vote, taking until 1971 to do so! These fights for political equality were followed by a second wave of grievances, ones opening the door to economics.

The two movements in Iceland – the “Day Off” and the election of Vigdis – illustrated the interconnection of economic and political inequalities women face within a patriarchal system. In 1975 there were just three sitting female Icelandic MPs, or just 5 percent of the parliament, compared with between 16 and 23 percent in the other Nordic countries. Globally, women continue to be underrepresented in politics. Without also gaining equal political representation for women, it will be difficult to achieve equal pay for equal work.

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Gender pay gap across Europe: causes and effects

In 1976, a year after the strike, Iceland formed the Gender Equality Council and passed the Gender Equality Act, which outlawed gender discrimination in workplaces and schools. Today Iceland has the highest level of women’s participation in the labour market, with heavily subsidised childcare and three months’ paid parental leave to each parent.

Despite these improvements and being the best country in the world for gender equality – the country has topped the U.N.’s Global Gender Gap Report for the sixth year in a row – women in Iceland still earn on average 14 to 18 per cent less than their male colleagues. Currently, there’s no country in the entire world where a woman earns as much as a man for doing the same job. This is know as the “gender pay gap”. According to unions and women’s organisations, this means in every eight hour day Icelandic women are essentially working without pay from 2:38 pm. So, to mark the 41st anniversary of the original “Women’s Day Off,” thousands of female employees across Iceland walked out of workplaces at 2.38 pm on Monday to protest against earning less than men.

In 2005, women left work at 2:08 pm.

In eleven years, less than three minutes has been gained annually towards eliminating the gender pay gap. If progress continues at the same rate, it will take 52 years to eliminate the disparity between men and women’s earnings in Iceland entirely.

The fight for gender equality in 1970’s Iceland is reminiscent of battles in other countries, such as the UK. In 1968, five women led a strike of sewing machinists at Ford Motor Company Limited’s Dagenham plant in London, which employed tens of thousands of workers. (The film Made in Dagenham chronicles the strike.) Ford was making billions in profits while the women in its plant were struggling to pay their bills.

The 187 women made car seat covers and as stock ran out the strike eventually resulted in a halt to all car production. The women walked out when they were informed that they were graded as “less skilled” and that they would be paid 15 percent less than the full rate received by men, both of which were common practices for companies at the time. The strike soon spread and, with the help of the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, ultimately resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which did, for the first time, aim to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment in the UK.

The striking female machinists from the Ford Dagenham plant who fought for equal pay in 1968.

The striking female machinists from the Ford Dagenham plant who fought for equal pay in 1968.

Research shows that the gender pay gap is not the same among all women. It cuts differently across racial lines. A woman in the US typically earns 6 to 39 percent less than a white man; but a woman of colour earns less than her white counterpart.

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The gender pay gap is worse for women of colour.

The older you are, the bigger the gap. A 2014 survey by the Chartered Management Institute and XpertHR on the gender pay gap last week found that female managers earn less than their male counterparts, with the gap increasing with age. At 23 percent, the management gender pay gap is wider than the 19.7 percent in the workforce as a whole.

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The gender pay gap varies across age.

The gender pay gap also varies widely from country to country, the World Economic Forum reports. A woman earned only 48 percent of a man’s salary in Italy and 47 percent in Israel.

Burundi, where four out of five people live below the poverty line, is the top country in women’s pay. Women in the tiny African country earn 83 percent of salaries of the men in the same jobs.

In the so-called “developed world” women’s wages come closest to men’s in Norway and Singapore, but even there it’s still at 80%.

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The gender pay gap by country.

Why does the gender pay gap exist?

After fighting for the right to vote and to be legally protected from discrimination by employers, women are told that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist. So, to answer that question, it’s necessary to first dispel some of the common myths, according to the European Commission.

Myth #1: More women work part-time, so they should earn less.

Working fewer hours a week means you should take home less pay per month, NOT less pay per hour.

Myth #2: Women earn less because they choose lower earning jobs.

Women tend to earn less per hour than men for the same job whether it is a highly-skilled profession like a doctor or nurse or a lower-skilled job such as a salesperson. The gender pay gap exists across our economy, and in all sectors and occupations.

Myth #3: Men are better educated, so should earn more.

Today, 60% of university graduates in the EU are women.

Women’s equality movements in Iceland and elsewhere, combined with ongoing research, continue to remind us of these facts. Despite major gains in achieving higher education, girls and women have equal access to education in only 25 of the 142 countries. Discrimination from birth through schooling prevents women from achieving their economic liberation. Even worse, Algeria and Iran have the lowest female participation in the labor force with less than one in five women working outside their home.

Men still dominate the worlds of business and politics – Jamaica, Colombia, Lesotho and Fiji are the only four countries with more female legislators, senior officials and managers. Men continue to make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles – for example, there are just five female Chief Executives in the FTSE 100. Male-dominated companies and legislatures have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to address gender discrimination unless they are pushed by movements seeking change.

New laws need to be passed to overcome remaining barriers to women. More countries should consider passing legislation to ensure paid maternity leave for mothers and should include equal levels of paternity leave for fathers. Until men take an equal share of care work (of children, of the aged, of their spouses), women will continue to face an unfair job market.

Women in business, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, are trying to provide their own solution: corporate feminism. In the book Lean Out, Dawn Foster unpicks how the purportedly feminist message of Sandberg neatly exempts patriarchy, capitalism and business from any responsibility for changing the position of women in contemporary culture. Foster and others point out that corporate feminists want women to work within the sexist system of business without changing its fundamental problems. Gloria Steinem provides a simpler examination: “If you say, I’m for equal pay, that’s a reform. But if you say, I’m a feminist, that’s a transformation of society.”

Another book that questions the current state of affairs is Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal. In her book, Marçal shows that even today, the unpaid work of mothering, caring, cleaning and cooking is not part of our economic models. All over the world, there are economists who believe that if women are paid less, then that’s because their labour is worth less. Until political economies value all women at all levels of society, there will never be an “economic woman” like the “economic man” that has existed for millennia.

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First Days in Uganda

My first exposure to Uganda consisted of a midnight crossing of theKIHEFO international border that is shared with Rwanda along the three-hour drive from Kigali to Kigezi district. Along with KIHEFO’s driver Enock and four University of Calgary medical students, I filled out the appropriate forms and showed my passport, with a newly acquired East Africa Visa, enough times to make it through the gauntlet of road stops and gunned border agents. With the darkness around us and only a few stars above, we drove the short distance from the border to my new home of Kabale – a southwestern, hilly town of around 50,000 people.

I was thankful to be the first one in our van to arrive. It was 1:00 am and I was in desperate need of something other than a car or airport terminal to call home. My apartment companions Trina and Atayo greeted me and gave me the short version of their home tour before calling it a night. I was running on fumes, but took them up on the offer of a shower, as it would be my first in over 72 hours of travel, layovers, and a night asleep on the benches of Toronto Airport’s Terminal 3.

That first day of work – Monday – would set the tone for the rest of the week, as it was filled with continuous learning and interaction
after interaction. I met more students – these ones were American – who were here to learn about public health in a East African context; some of whom arrived a day before me. We started with a great presentation on the history and work of Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO), an organization that does amazing work in providing health care to the four districts of Kigezi. In addition to their permanent clinics – medical and dental care, HIV/AIDS, child nutrition – in Kabale, KIHEFO does several outreaches each month in surrounding communities. In the afternoon, we were able to actually tour these clinics and the town of Kabale. The town is flowing with hills, houses set into them like blocks, with stores and the artery roads running through the valley.

Over the next two days, we were given presentations on the health care uganda mapoptions in Uganda, which range from village health teams and traditional healers to formal national hospitals; and on the conditions mothers face in during their pregnancy, during childbirth, and while caring for children.

Thursday allowed me to start looking at the Village Nutrition Surveys that have been developed to find out what families face in Kigezi. With questions covering access to water, illness, foods consumed, and household assets, it will allow KIHEFO to have quantifiable data for future initiatives in their communities.

I was invited to add additional questions related to water access and sanitation facilities, so that information from these sectors could also be used in future planning.

The last day of the week gave all of the new arrivals, including myself, our first look at village life in Uganda, with a tour of a primary school in Ibumba. After speaking with teachers and having the most amazing welcome by their students, we traveled a short distance away with the school’s deputy headmaster to speak with a women’s group that she is leading. Together, this group of widowed and orphaned women have found strength. They farm together, save together, and learn together. They also helped us learn, by describing the challenges they face in their remote community.

The weekend gave me time to rest, relax, and do a few errands. On Saturday, I started the process of making some custom shirts with local fabric. Two yards of fabric, which comes in amazingly bright patterns, sells for 10,000 Ugandan shillings (or $4). This is enough to make a single men’s shirt, tailored to your exact measurements, costing an additional 20,000 shillings (or $8).On Sunday, I washed clothes. To hand wash clothes completely and in a reasonable amount of time is an art form; I am not there yet.

Looking forward, the second week will see me going out into communities and participate on maternal and child health surveys. There will also be the opportunity to discuss new ways of small-scale agriculture with local youth. Both of these projects have me excited to learn more about Uganda and the issues that people live with each day.

More updates to come.

Hand Wash Only

What is it like to wash all your clothes by hand and have no access to a washing machine. Mostly, it takes time.

Here is how I would wash a week’s worth of dirty laundry while in Nicaragua (or anywhere with a lack of machinery to do the work).

  • Bring your clothes to the local source of water. This might be a tap in your home or the nearby stream.
  • Fill a bucket, pan, or any other large container with clean water. Add detergent. This will be your equivalent of a ‘wash cycle’.
  • Place clothes in bucket to soak.
  • While these are soaking, fill a second container with water. This will be your ‘rinse cycle’.
  • To wash your clothes, you can use a washing board, like I found in my hostel in Esteli, but I prefer to do it the way I was taught in Ghana. The basic goal is to rub clothes vigorously over themselves to agitate and remove dirt. This is a long process as you have to clean each item, one at a time, repeatedly to make it clean.
  • For example, to wash a shirt: hold with your left hand, then grab a bit of it with your right hand and rub over your wrist; move the shirt up a bit and rub again; move it up again and rub. Do this two or three times by re-orientating the garment so that you have washed all of it.
  • Do this with each item.
  • Tip: ring out the water over your bucket first to save detergent.
  • Once you have completing washing, place clothes into the second bucket.
  • After they’ve had a bit of time to soak out the last bit of detergent, repeat the hand washing cycle again for an extra clean.
  • Once all items have gone through both cycles, they are ready for hanging. This is the equivalent of a dryer – using the sun instead of heat.
  • Give each item a quick snap of the wrist to get out some extra water and then attach to a clothes line with clothes pins. It will take several hours or up to the next day for them to dry. Watch out for the rainy season, as you may need to take items down and out of the rain momentarily.

In the end, this process would take me easily an hour to go through my own clothes after a week. Some shirts, a few pairs of socks, underwear, and maybe a pair of pants. It is intensive and draining.

Or, to avoid all this hard work (and time) throw everything into a washing machine and walk away.

This is the great privilege we have in the West, which is to have the money to buy technology to save us work, time, and effort with daily tasks. It allows us time to do other things, like further our education, earn more money through working, or have spare time to exercise and enjoy life. It’s easy to forget how labor intensive an activity would be if you’ve never had to try it, as many Westerners have been able to with laundry.

Hans Rosling (in his TED Talk embedded below) beautifully describes the power of the washing machine in opening up opportunities for the women and girls who would other have to do laundry by hand. I have to agree with him and say that the washing machine is truly an invention difficult to give up.