Today marks 102 years since the first celebration of Women’s Day.
It all started in Northern Europe with German political activist Clara Zetkin, who proposed the establishment of what was originally known as International Working Women’s Day. On March 8, 1911, more than one million people assembled to demand women’s right to vote, to work, and to receive vocational training as well as to protest gender discrimination in the workplace.
When this movement began, the idea of these revolutionary women was to change policies and laws to create equal opportunities. More than a century later, after a great deal of progress but still no victory, it is worth asking ourselves whether these changes to achieve gender equality depend solely on the policies adopted by each country or if, to a larger extent, the other features of the society where the policies are implemented can be determinants for their success.
When we talk about women’s rights, we are inevitably also talking about the socially assigned gender roles that categorically define the nature of a man and a woman and the expectations for each. It would seem logical to think that for a woman to work outside the home, household chores must be divided among the other able-bodied members of the household, whether men or women. After years of struggling for women’s rights, we’d like to believe that the figures would be a bit more encouraging, but recent studies tell us that 80% of unpaid housework is performed by women.
Another paradox is that today, Latin American women achieve an average of 0.5 more years of education than men; however, when it comes to choosing a career, they tend to concentrate on lower-paying professions. Women hold only 33% of the positions in the region’s highest paid professions, such as architecture, law and engineering. In fact, it’s been shown that even when a man and a woman work in the same job with the same responsibilities, the woman’s salary is significantly lower.
Other factors that lead to inequality of opportunity between men and women are the lack of consensus and shared decisions about sexuality and reproduction, as well as decisions regarding the care and upbringing of children, issues that are frequently mentioned in this blog. Twenty-five percent of the region’s working women are employed on a part-time basis in order to be able to devote a substantial portion of their time to childrearing tasks.
All of these figures reveal that we still have certain old-fashioned ideas embedded in our social norms, which determine gender roles. From a government perspective, it is understandable why it proves quite difficult to compete against these established beliefs, but it is not impossible.
We know it is a complex task to change the behaviors and beliefs that form part of a culture. These social norms significantly affect decisions made by individuals and families, decisions that are motivated by more than just economic factors. Therefore, public policy can provide society with information or incentives that promote social norms consistent with respect for the right of men and women to create their life plans.
In this sense, the policy goal should not be equality of results. Instead, a more interesting goal would be to ensure that each and every person can develop freely, with equality of opportunity, regardless of characteristics such as socioeconomic status, gender, or ethnicity. A concrete example related to the tasks of parenting within the home is found in Nordic countries, where moms and dads are equally rewarded for staying at home to look after their children. This is a policy that creates equal opportunities.
In short, the challenge of International Women’s Day is even greater than the women of 1911 imagined: public policy and culture must both undergo a transformation in order to move in the same direction. And, on a day as important as today, it is worth reflecting a few minutes on what we are doing as individuals, parents, politicians and women to head in this direction.
Serrana Mujica is responsible for the communication´s area of the IDB´s Social Protection and Health Division.