International Women’s Day – We have come far, but not far enough

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College visits are on my calendar for child #4, the first time we as a family have made this journey for a daughter. Spending time on a college campus with a son who is a potential freshman is much different than a daughter’s visit. For one matter, there is more conversation happening between parent and child. Just like shoe choices, girls need to visit more colleges before making their final decision.

As a potential college student in the late 1970’s, I visited 2 colleges, both within a 2 hour drive of my home. I was the first person in my extended family that had considered a college degree and my parents had no clue about the process.  America has come a long way since my college visits in the late 1970’s. Today 55-60% of college freshman are women, 50% of medical school enrollees are women and 90% of ob/gyn residents are female. But what happens after women graduate and get into the workforce still needs some attention. America is one of the few developed countries that does not have a paid maternity/paternity leave policy. Childcare is disproportionately expensive and the reason that many women in low paying jobs are unable to use their skills outside the home. Sexism is still a factor in most workplaces – now more subtle than overt and possibly more difficult to address.

After working in the field of medicine for 24 years, you would think I could become immune to some of these injustices, but it still hurts when you spend 30 minutes explaining surgical options to a patient and at the end of the conversation the patient asks who will be performing the surgery. “I thought you just delivered babies and weren’t a surgeon”. Surgical instruments are made with a one size fits all mentality – unfortunately I have hands that are on the smaller end of normal. Surgeons who perform their job well are driven, expect perfection from themselves and others, directive and need to put their emotions aside at times. Those qualities are often not consistent with a traditional female role.  I have had male physician partners inform me that two children for a working woman is sufficient and I was not an adequate parent when I increased my family size. Others have informed me that a marriage will suffer if a wife brings home more income than a man (my husband is firmly on the other side of this statement and we have been married for 31 years).

All of the above aside, I feel very fortunate with my life circumstances when I compare myself to the majority of women in this world and especially those women I work with in the developing  world. They frequently have no options for work outside the home as all of their day is spent performing household tasks – cooking, fetching water, taking care of children.  They are forced into marriage at a young age and don’t have the option of contraception to delay childbearing or space our their children. Education is often not available to female children or they leave school early to help their mothers with household chores. Women are seen as possessions, only to be discarded if they do not produce children (or more importantly male children) or have an illness.

It is not a surprise that the happiest nations in the world are those who come closest to sexual equality. They may not be the richest countries, but countries like Iceland, Denmark and Sweden acknowledge that woman have a place in the workforce by supporting paid maternity leave of up to a year and subsidized childcare. 30-40% of government positions are held by women, which helps to influence legislation.  Contraception is low cost and available to all women, whether they work for a religious institution or private corporation. These provisions benefit not only women but also their partners and families.

So while we need to work with developing nations to empower women and girls, we also need to work for change in our own country so that women have equal choices to men once they graduate from college and enter the workforce.

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School girls in Haiti receiving reusable menstrual pad kits and education about menstruation

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