It's time to reinvigorate our nation’s fight for gender equity. Other countries can offer inspiration and practical solutions to improve health and well-being for people of all genders within our lifetime.
As a mother of two girls, I often wonder what would it look like if women didn’t have to exit the workforce to cover childcare? If men taking paternity leave was the norm, rather than the exception? If our kids had more female and LGBTQ role models to look up to in elected office?
While we have seen important advances toward gender equity in the U.S, most improvements in employment, education, and income happened before the turn of the century. Progress has dwindled or stalled entirely in the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced women out of the workforce in record numbers, is a stark reminder of the gender inequities that still exist. It's time to reinvigorate our nation’s fight for gender equity.
Gender Equity is Good for Our Health
Today in the U.S., women experience barriers to education, income, employment, and healthcare that continue to limit our opportunities for good health and well-being. Women of color often face the greatest injustices. Take employment, for example. For every dollar White fathers were paid in 2018, White mothers made 69 cents; Black mothers made 50 cents; Native American mothers made 47 cents; and Latina mothers made just 45 cents. Addressing this pay gap can have significant health benefits, as higher incomes can lead to healthier living conditions, access to healthcare and protection from chronic stress.
Gender equity is not just a women’s issue. Transgender and nonbinary people, for instance, are too often denied the affirming and culturally competent care they need. In fact, in 2021 one in three transgender adults reported having to teach their doctor about transgender people in order to receive appropriate care. Men also experience gender discrimination. A survey revealed that men overwhelmingly value care work and want to share it equally with their partners. Yet, they often feel trapped by society’s gender norms that stigmatize taking paternity leave or carving out flexible hours for caregiving.
We cannot hope to improve health and health equity in the U.S. without ensuring that everyone, regardless of gender, has a fair and just opportunity to thrive–at work, at home, at school and in the doctor's office.
Lessons From Abroad
From Canada, to Mexico and all the way to Malawi, other nations have succeeded in transforming some of the systems that keep gender inequities in place. As the U.S. begins implementing its national gender strategy, these nations can offer insights that can help guide our approaches and strengthen our ability to close gender gaps.
The International Center for Research on Women searched the globe for policies and initiatives that have accelerated progress on gender equity and identified promising examples in four areas:
● Political representation. In the U.S., women make up less than 30 percent of Congress despite accounting for over 50 percent of the population. Iceland and Rwanda, two countries with vastly different histories and political contexts, set out to increase women’s participation in government using the same strategy: establishing electoral gender quotas. With the help of quotas and strong grassroots organizing, including training for aspiring female leaders, these nations have rapidly achieved near-equal political participation of women. Women’s presence in office has led to a greater focus on health, education and wage parity. Vice President Kamala Harris’ arrival to the White House was a significant step toward gender equity, but how can we ensure this progress is sustained and achieved at all levels of government?
● Economic participation. Annually, the U.S. government contributes $500 per child on early childhood care, compared with a $14,000 average in other developed nations. Without access to child care assistance, mothers are often forced to leave the workforce to provide care. Fathers spend more time at work and miss out on enriching caretaking roles. Spain has designed an early childhood education policy that has helped parents overcome both of these issues. In 1990, the country opened up public school enrollment to toddlers under the age of three. In just a few years, the number of three year olds in school skyrocketed and formal employment for their mothers increased by 8 percent. Could the same happen in the US?
● Health. While maternal mortality rates were rising alarmingly in the U.S., they were plummeting in Estonia. The Baltic country’s vastly different approach to maternal care may explain this stark contrast in birth outcomes. All pregnant women in Estonia, regardless of residency status, receive free maternal healthcare throughout the full course of pregnancy, including prenatal care and up to three months after the delivery date. New moms in the U.S. still face the highest risk of death among high-income countries. How can we follow Estonia’s example and provide more comprehensive maternity care and postpartum support for all birthing people?
● Education. Despite our best efforts, the U.S. is not closing the STEM gender gap at an acceptable rate. Tunisia, though traditionally considered less gender equal, had the world’s second highest share of female STEM graduates in the late 2010s. Here, teachers and parents are encouraged not to underestimate girls’ math abilities and instead affirm STEM as a field where women thrive. By systematically and steadily tracking women and girls into science and math throughout their early education, the country’s Ministry of Education is heightening their opportunity and preparation to go into these fields as adults. Could an approach like Tunisia’s help more women and girls love STEM in the U.S.?
Learning in Action at the City Level
Alongside national efforts, cities around the world are taking action to advance gender equity. Los Angeles is one such bright spot. In 2015, Mayor Garcetti signed Executive Directive No. 11, “Gender Equity in City Operations,” calling on every City department to achieve gender equity. As the city began to transform government services and systems, from public transit and parks to its own hiring processes, it took inspiration from cities abroad including Bogota and Barcelona. Today, Los Angeles—alongside London, Barcelona, Freetown, Mexico City, and Tokyo—is a founding member of the City Hub and Network for Gender Equity (CHANGE), an effort that is helping other cities around the world apply a gender lens by sharing models for how local leaders and governments implement gender-focused and inclusive policies, and developing data and indicators to measure progress toward these goals.
It’s Time to Close the Gap
It is possible to close gender gaps—and cities and nations around the world are showing us that we can do it rapidly. What’s more, research shows that people are healthier in countries with high gender equity. Communities, local leaders and policymakers across the U.S. should feel empowered to pursue bold strategies here at home, buoyed by the progress and lessons from abroad. We can–and must–make progress on gender equity within our lifetimes. Doing so will significantly improve health and well-being for all in the U.S.
Shuma Panse, senior program officer, joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in February 2016, bringing extensive experience in business engagement on health, public-private partnerships, and global health.