Category Archives: Women’s Issues

The women who are taking on Wal-Mart

Pico Rivera is a dusty working-class Latino suburb of Los Angeles. After the school district, Wal-Mart is the city’s largest employer and the source of 10 percent of its tax revenue. More than 500 families in the town depend on income from the store.

The town is also the epicenter of activism by Wal-Mart workers in the United States.

Walmart associates have been fighting for four years to pressure the world’s largest private employer to grant its workers decent conditions, a living wage and regular hours.

Last fall, I flew to Los Angeles to interview Pico Wal-Mart workers for a book I’m writing about the 21st-century struggle by workers worldwide for a living wage. The Pico workers helped to galvanize that movement by organizing the first strike against a U.S. Wal-Mart in 2012. Since that time, the world has seen expansive organizing by garment workers, farm workers, fast food and retail workers from Capetown to Canada, Bangladesh to Brazil and Cambodia to California.

Echoes of movements past

The labor conditions and free market ideology that today’s low-wage workers are reacting against bear many resemblances to those faced by labor activists a century ago. And the workers involved have played on those historical resonances.

Bangladeshi garment workers invoke the memory of Jewish and Italian immigrant women workers killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Activist fast food workers carry “I am a Man” and “I am a Woman” signs, echoing the Memphis garbage workers strike of 1968. The Pico Wal-Mart workers carried photographs of the Woolworth strikers of 1937 when they sat in at an L.A. Walmart in 2014.

At the same time, this is a 21st-century movement. Activists make use of cellphones and Facebook and Snapchat to organize and publicize their actions.

For me as a labor historian, this contemporary movement with historic echoes is fascinating and powerful. That is what drew me to interview activists in the movement. As I got to know the Pico workers, I quickly learned that the personal cost of their activism has been high. Most have been fired or laid off. Local families have been donating food and clothing to those who now have no income.

Still, the activists are committed to making change. Many are in Bentonville, Arkansas at this year’s shareholders’ meeting to present a petition to Walmart executives demanding their reinstatement.

Wal-Mart matters

Simply put, what Wal-Mart does matters.

Wal-Mart is the world’s largest company and the largest private employer on Earth. It employs 1.4 million in the U.S. and 800,000 in 27 other countries on five continents. The only larger employers are public – the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese army.

As a result of its staggering size, Wal-Mart has tremendous influence on wages, labor standards, environmental standards and the national trade deficit as well as global trade policy. Labor activists, global trade analysts and economists talk of “the Wal-Mart effect.” By some estimates, Wal-Mart’s imports from China alone have cost 400,000 Americans their jobs between 2001 and 2013. The sheer volume of its purchases enables the company’s buyers to successfully press suppliers to lower their wages, labor costs and safety standards in order to lower their prices. This has had wide ripple effects, driving down manufacturing wages both in the U.S. and abroad.

The second largest private employer in the world is McDonald’s. Their workers have also been leaders in the global fight for a living wage. Earlier in May, 10,000 workers from across the U.S. staged a civil disobedience camp-out at the McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois. They are currently voting on whether to unionize.

Wal-Mart hasn’t yet agreed to talk to me for my book. However, their corporate website says:

our associates are the heart of our business – all 2.2 million of them. For tens of thousands of people every year, a new job at one of our stores, clubs, distribution centers or corporate offices opens the door to a better life.”

Corporate spokespeople insist that salaries, benefits and opportunities for advancement open to Wal-Mart associates are competitive with other major corporations.

Homeless workers

Former Pico Wal-Mart associate Jennie Mills has been living in her car for two years. She parks across from the Wal-Mart where she used to work, sleeping in the little hatchback with her husband and their cat. I met her at the nearby Denny’s where employees let the couple wash up every morning in the restaurant bathroom.

Jenny Mills.
Liz Cooke, CC BY

“Even when I was working,” Mills told me, “I couldn’t afford to pay for my apartment. When my son got hurt and couldn’t work any more, I was evicted. There were three homeless workers at my Wal-Mart.”

Her son also worked for the Pico Wal-Mart, doing lifting and stocking shelves. When he was injured on the job, he was told by his manager to continue working. Injured again, this time more seriously, he could no longer do his job. He was, she says, unceremoniously laid off. Since that time Jennie Mills has been a militant OUR Wal-Mart activist. She wears the group’s neon green T-shirt proudly.

Though Wal-Mart workers have been organizing across the U.S. and around the world – Chile and China have been particularly militant – Pico’s Wal-Mart associates helped start it all.

In fall 2012, Denise Barlage and co-workers Venanzi Luna and Evelin Cruz led the first strike against a Wal-Mart in the United States. Unionized Wal-Mart workers from Italy, Uruguay, Chile and South Africa flew in to support them, walking them back into the store when the strike ended so that managers could not harass or fire them for striking.

No accommodations

Girshreila Green
Liz Cooke, CC BY

That same year, pregnant Wal-Mart workers from California to Maryland also began challenging the stores’ labor policies, Girshriela Green of the Crenshaw store in South Central Los Angeles told me.

When Green reached her last trimester of pregnancy, she asked her manager for lighter work. This was the first job she had been able to find since coming off welfare, she told me, and she really liked it. Still, she did not want to risk losing her baby. Her manager’s response was not what she had hoped: Take an unpaid leave or “do your job.” At that time, Wal-Mart made no accommodations for pregnant workers.

Injured while lifting stock, Green saw no choice but to continue working. She couldn’t afford to lose her paycheck. Repeatedly asked to stock bulky, heavy items, she says she ended up with dangerous bone spurs in her throat, and had to take a leave. She was sitting on her living room couch in a neck brace when the call came telling her she’d been fired. That’s when she decided to join Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, better known as OUR Wal-Mart.

Green reached out to other pregnant Wal-Mart workers. They formed a group called Respect the Bump. With the help of the National Women’s Law Center, Respect filed a complaint against Wal-Mart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They charged violation of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Before the complaint could be fully litigated, Wal-Mart announced a change in policy. It would now make accommodations for pregnant workers.

But the changes in policy were not enough to stop injuries on the job – even after the Supreme Court’s 2016 UPS decision ordering that company to make accommodations for pregnant workers. Respect is continuing to fight and to sue.

The price of protesting

To protest Wal-Mart’s retaliations against activists, workers from 30 cities walked off their jobs in Spring 2013, joining a Ride For Respect to Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Green told me that the “Respect Riders” were met by security and dogs. “We just wanted to talk to our employers. And they threatened to have us arrested.”

It was in November of 2014 that Barlage, Luna, Tyfani Faulkner and 25 others staged a sit-down strike, the first retail sit-down since Woolworth workers struck in 1937. “We shut down the store for almost two hours,” Luna told me. “Corporate was freaking out.”

She and other workers put tape over their mouths bearing the word STRIKE. The tape was meant to illustrate Wal-Mart’s attempts to silence workers, Barlage and Luna told me. The strikers held up pictures of the Woolworth sit-down strikers. They felt they were making history.

Meanwhile, in Pico-Rivera, hundreds of protesters sang the old labor anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Then, parodying Wal-Mart’s slogan “Pay Less, Live Better,” they sat down in traffic holding hand-lettered signs that read: “Stand Up, Live Better. Sit Down, Live Better.”

At first, the pressure seemed to yield results. In Spring 2015, Wal-Mart announced that it would be raising wages for 500,000 of its lowest-paid workers to US$9 an hour by April 2015 and $10 an hour by 2016. There was a quick shareholder backlash and dire predictions about how these wages would affect corporate profits.

Then, in April 2015, corporate headquarters suddenly closed five stores in four states, laying off 2,200 workers without warning. Pico Rivera was among the stores closed. Venanzi Luna told me she came to work that day and found the doors locked. No one saw it coming, she said. Full-time workers and some part-time employees received 60 days severance. Many did not qualify. Wal-Mart claimed that most workers who wanted transfers to other stores were given that opportunity. Luna says that is not true and that none of the transferred workers were members of OUR Wal-Mart.

Management claimed the stores were shut down to repair plumbing problems. OUR Wal-Mart and allies in the United Food and Commercial Workers said it was punishment for the militancy of the Pico workers.

Wal-Mart has a history of shutting down stores to punish strikers. In 2013 and 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Wal-Mart was illegally intimidating and sanctioning workers in retaliation for their organizing.

Workers at the five closed stores filed Unfair Labor Practice complaints.

In November 2015, in time for Black Friday, the Pico Rivera store was reopened. None of the OUR Walmart activists was rehired, Luna and Barlage told me. Venanzi Luna is still out of work. “I was suicidal for a while,” she said, despondent at the thought that her activism had left her neighbors without income. “People came over to me and said ‘If it wasn’t for you, we would still have our jobs.’” Recently, when Luna tried to shop where she used to work, she says that she was recognized, stopped and escorted out by security.

Still, Luna, Barlage, Cruz, Green, Mills and Tyfani Falkner are in the struggle for the long haul. The Pico Rivera workers and allies from across the U.S. have continued to rally and speak out. Over Thanksgiving 2015, Falkner, Barlage and other current and former Wal-Mart associates staged a Fast for $15 hunger strike in front of the Manhattan apartment of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. They had a banner that read “Alice Walton: Wal-Mart Workers are Hungry.”

Evelin Cruz
Liz Cooke, CC BY

Evelin Cruz told me that she and the other Pico workers will never tone down their protests. “We were the loudest in the fight for fair wages and enough hours. We were the first to go on strike. We were the first to do a sit-down. We will be the last to shut our mouths.”

In December 2015, OUR Walmart began lobbying the United States Congress to investigate the corporation’s labor practices. In January 2016, after filing repeated Unfair Labor Practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, Wal-Mart workers won two major victories. First, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that Wal-Mart had violated federal law by firing activist workers and had to rehire them. One of these was Evelin Cruz. Getting her job back won’t stop her speaking out, Cruz says.

On May 3, 2016, the NLRB cited Wal-Mart for firing and disciplining activist workers in 10 states. Wal-Mart store managers were also required to read aloud to employees the federal government’s ban on retaliating against workers for organizing.

Though she has not yet been rehired, Denise Barlage says that she has found her calling – labor organizing. “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,“ she told me. “For my children. For the next generation. So they will not be treated this way. Everybody deserves a decent living. Everybody deserves respect. I enjoy organizing, speaking out. And I’m going to keep on doing it.”

On May 30, she flew to Bentonville for the Wal-Mart shareholders’ meeting to speak out on behalf of the many workers she says Wal-Mart has illegally fired for organizing. It is the fourth year in a row she has done so.

Fast food workers are also pushing McDonald’s to pay a living wage and give its workers regular hours. Bangladeshi garment workers marched this May for higher wages and staged a global day of action against the global clothing retailer H & M to demand it make its Bangladeshi factories safe from fire and building collapse. Migrant berry pickers are protesting child labor in the fields owned by the “world’s berry company,” Driscoll’s.

“We started a revolution that has spread around the world,” Venanzi Luna told me proudly. She may be right.

The Conversation

Annelise Orleck, Professor of History, Dartmouth College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Even small co-pays for contraception can be a big deal

On May 11 the Obama admin released updated guidance on insurance coverage of contraception. The announcement provides much-needed clarification for insurance plans regulated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Before this announcement, the guidance for what insurers were supposed to do was vague.

The ACA requires insurers to provide women access to the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods at no cost. But insurers could use “reasonable medical management” to introduce cost-containment measures like providing generics at no-cost, while requiring co-pays for a branded equivalent.

Some insurers used reasonable medical management to restrict access to some forms of contraception – often the more expensive, but longer-lasting forms. And that lead to variation among insurance plans about which contraceptives required a co-pay and which did not.

The new guidance specifies that at least one birth control method from each of 18 different categories must be covered without cost-sharing in all eligible plans. Reasonable medical management and cost-containment strategies can still be used, as long as methods in each category are offered.

So why does it matter than some insurers were restricting access to some forms of contraception?

About half of pregnancies in the US are unintended – and that has much to do with access and use of contraception. Unintended pregnancies lead to an estimated US$5 billion in costs for the US health-care system per year, while birth control use provides cost-savings of $19 billion each year. Even small improvements in contraceptive use could result in a meaningful reduction in the number of unintended pregnancies.

Why are co-pays such an important issue?

Relative to other forms of health care, the low cost of so many contraceptive methods may make the individual out-of-pocket expense seem unimportant. But to many women, these costs are real. Cost is a big factor in choosing to use one form of contraception over another, using it consistently or even the likelihood of using contraception at all.

Notably, the most effective methods (such as long-acting reversible contraceptives, like intrauterine devices (IUDs) or hormone implants) have the highest up-front cost. And if women must share the cost, that discourages them from using these highly effective methods.

We studied the relationship between out-of-pocket costs and contraception use among almost 1.7 million women enrolled in the types of plans regulated by the ACA rules between January 1 and December 31, 2011. Women in plans with the highest level of cost-sharing were 35% less likely to have an IUD placed than women with the lowest level of cost-sharing – suggesting that even higher income women are sensitive to the price of contraceptives.

The Contraceptive Choice study, which offered almost 10,000 women free birth control, demonstrated that low-income and uninsured women will select the most effective (and most expensive) birth control methods at high rates when cost is not a factor.

This is why the new White House guidelines are so important. The broader menu of options available will increase women’s access to their preferred method, which may in turn improve contraception use patterns and decrease unintended pregnancy.

There’s more to contraception than the pill.
Contraceptive pills via

One contraceptive is not like another

All contraceptives aim to prevent pregnancy, but there are a variety of ways they can do so. They aren’t interchangeable and the method that may work best for one woman may not be suitable for another.

Under previous guidance, many insurers interpreted the law to mean they must cover at least one – but not all – option from each of five categories: hormonal contraception (like birth control pills, vaginal rings or patches), barrier methods (diaphragm), emergency contraception, implanted devices (like IUDs or hormone implants) and sterilization.

But this approach to grouping methods doesn’t reflect the clinical uses for each type of contraception. For instance, the contraceptive ring was considered a “hormonal” method, and since there is a generic pill containing the same hormones as the ring, insurers have often not covered it because they consider them equivalent. But the ring lasts for three weeks before needing to be replaced, while the pill needs to be taken every day. And this distinction is important for women who know that they will sometimes forget to take a pill every day.

Even methods that are similar – such as the copper IUD and the hormone-containing IUD – are not, in medical parlance, therapeutic equivalents. This means that they have different medical uses, health benefits or side effects. These products aren’t interchangeable – the best one for an individual woman will depend on her menstrual patterns, tolerance of side effects and prior birth control experience. Clinicians, therefore, use them in different situations

When physicians help women choose the “best” choice, we look at her medical history, lifestyle and a product’s unique characteristics. In contraception, it’s important to never underestimate the importance of side effects or ease of use, since they can drive how consistently a woman uses a particular method. If our goal is consistent, effective use, we must remove barriers to an individual’s choice of birth control method.

Not the same.
Pills and IUD via

How much of a difference will the new guidelines make?

In the months before the White House released the new guidelines, three different reports captured the coverage variations between insurance plans.

A report from the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization focused on reproductive health, in September 2014 found that women continued to report out-of-pocket costs, especially for the most effective methods, like the IUD.

In April, a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation looked at coverage for 12 contraceptive methods among 20 different insurance carriers in five states. The organization found significant variation in interpretation and coverage among the plans. They also found that methods such as the vaginal ring and patch (which don’t need to be taken daily) and the most-effective methods like the implant and IUD, were less likely to be covered without cost-sharing.

Further gaps were identified by the National Women’s Law Center in an analysis of more than 100 insurance plans in 15 states. They concluded that 33 plans in 13 states did not comply with the ACA. These plans were not covering all FDA-approved methods. They imposed cost-sharing, only covering generic methods or were not covering associated services, such as counseling or administration visits.

If our nation wishes to reduce the high number of unintended pregnancies – and the costs and abortions that result from them – improving women’s access to the contraceptive methods they prefer, and that they will use consistently, is key. The updated guidelines from the White House mean that American women face fewer barriers to use the contraceptive method of their choice.

The Conversation

Vanessa K Dalton is Associate Professor at University of Michigan.
Lauren MacAfee is Fellow, Family Planning at University of Michigan.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Most people think ‘man’ when they think ‘scientist’ – how can we kill the stereotype?

Children learn to associate science with men at early ages. Over 40 years ago, less than 1% of American and Canadian elementary school children drew a woman when asked to draw a scientist. My latest research, published in Journal of Educational Psychology, shows that gender-science stereotypes persist even now, worldwide.

Using data from nearly 350,000 people in 66 nations, my colleagues and I found that these stereotypes prevail even in supposedly “gender-equal” nations like Norway and Sweden. These stereotypes matter because they can cause actions such as comments that overlook female scientists and hiring biases that favor men in some contexts.

Identifying the extent of the issue is one thing. It is another matter to learn how to change these beliefs so they reflect the diversity of actual scientists – and the children of both sexes who hope to grow up to join them.

More women, weaker stereotypes

The good news is that gender-science stereotypes were weaker in nations with more women in science. Nations with more female science majors, for instance, had weaker gender-science stereotypes on both “explicit” and “implicit” measures.

Screenshot from the Implicit Association Test. Most participants implicitly associate science with men and can therefore categorize words faster when the Science word category is paired with Male than Female. These faster response times are thought to reflect implicit stereotypes, which tend to be more automatic and less conscious than explicit stereotypes., CC BY-NC-ND

Self-selected subjects completed these measures on the Project Implicit website. For the explicit measure, people rated how much they associated science with males or females. For the implicit measure, a computerized task assessed how quickly people associated science words such as “math” and “physics” with male words such as “boy” and “man.”

My website has an interactive table with rankings for all nations. For implicit stereotypes, the US ranked in the middle at number 38 out of 66 nations, for instance. The UK was close by at number 33, while Australia was number 28, meaning implicit stereotypes associating science with men were stronger there.

Out of all 66 nations, the Netherlands had the strongest explicit stereotypes and second strongest implicit stereotypes. For instance, 89% of Dutch subjects implicitly associated science with men more than women.

Simone Buitendijk, vice-rector at Leiden University in the Netherlands and a gender equity scholar, told me that she is not surprised, but nevertheless deeply concerned. “It is very much part of Dutch culture to see men as breadwinners and women as caretakers first,” she said.

The strong Dutch stereotypes reflect the male dominance in science there. Dutch men outnumber Dutch women by roughly 4:1 among science majors, for instance. “It will take a concerted effort by government, funding agencies and university leaders to change the situation,” Buitendijk argued.

The more female science majors, the weaker implicit gender-science stereotypes. Graph primarily reflects 2000-2008 data.
Adapted from Figure 2c in Miller, Eagly, and Linn (in press), CC BY-NC-ND

These data might suggest to some that stereotypes merely reflect reality. However, the data paint a more complex picture. People linked science with men even in nations such as Argentina and Bulgaria where women are approximately half of science majors and researchers.

Curt Rice, head of Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research, told me how these international findings relate to a “gender equality paradox” sometimes discussed in Scandinavia. On one hand, Scandinavian nations have small gender gaps in labor force participation rates. “But we have tremendous sex-based segregation in the careers,” he said.

What happens when a woman is at the front of the science classroom?

Dispelling stereotypes – or reinforcing?

Highlighting examples of female scientists might help to weaken these pervasive stereotypes. For instance, in Norway, Rice plans to advance initiatives that enhance the visibility of female science professors through his upcoming role as President of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

Empirical data, however, suggest that female professors often have limited effects on students’ gender-science stereotypes. “Simply taking a college mathematics course from female instructors is generally not sufficient to change stereotypes,” notes my co-author Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

According to one study, taking chemistry and engineering courses from female versus male professors can even strengthen gender-science stereotypes if students do not identify with the professors.

Related research suggests that the attitudes and messages that teachers convey can be more important than the teachers’ gender. In one study, for instance, kindergarten girls endorsed gender-math stereotypes if their female teacher was anxious about mathematics.

More optimistically, educators could help weaken stereotypes by engaging students in analyzing varied examples of female scientists, argues Marcia Linn, the other co-author of my study and professor of cognition and development at University of California, Berkeley. “Students reconsider who pursues science when they can compare examples of female scientists and reflect on their beliefs,” she says.

Did you know all scientists aren’t old white dudes?
World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND

Integrating stories about scientists into classroom instruction could have other benefits too. In one experiment, for instance, learning how scientists struggled in their research increased students’ content understanding and interest in science.

Seeing female peers in science might also help weaken stereotypes. Explicit gender-science stereotypes, for instance, are weaker among students in more gender-balanced science majors like biology than male-dominated majors like physics, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. However, the data on peers are also complex. Implicit gender-science stereotypes are roughly the same among physical and biological science majors, for instance.

These studies reflect how firm gender-science stereotypes are, consistent with the Greek root “stereos” meaning “solid, firm.” Our cross-national findings nevertheless suggest optimism that stereotypes can change as people see more women in science. But changing cultural beliefs will be a slow process.

Marie Curie isn’t the only woman who’s pursued science.

To accelerate cultural change, we need to move beyond heralding single examples of eminent female scientists such as Marie Curie. We even need to move beyond creating lists of accomplished female scientists, and instead directly integrate those examples into diverse cultural messages. Most recently, Disney Junior announced it will work with Google and NASA to create TV characters of both young boys and girls interested in coding and space science.

I applaud such efforts, but more needs to be done to integrate female scientists into other cultural artifacts such as news articles, movies, and textbooks. These efforts are needed so that it’s not seen as atypical to discuss a woman scientist.

The Conversation

David Miller is Doctoral Student in Psychology at Northwestern University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Congress to Probe for Gender Bias in U.S. Science Funding

After a formal request made by three Congresswomen, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has officially launched an investigation over whether there really is a gender bias wielding influence over who is awarded research grants, something that would be a violation of the law.

Already, it’s pretty clear that there exists a sizable gender disparity when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and also research at American universities and four year colleges. Only about 35 percent of all the tenured and tenure-track positions are held by women, and women only account for 17 percent of full professor positions in STEM fields. The size of this discrepancy has driven a number of studies to discover the biggest possible factors responsible for holding women back. Many of them have investigated from the beginning, looking at gender expectations of children beginning school or when looking to apply to colleges. While these certainly play a part, there is still a question of the women who continue pursuing careers in academic positions compared to those who choose to venture off into careers in the private sector.

Funding bias seems as though it could be one of the critical factors, holding them back, but at present, the GAO investigation has arrived at a considerable road block. As it turns out, three of what are the six largest agencies who provide funding for research grants — the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Defense (DOD), and of course, NASA—have actually not been keeping track of demographic information on who applies for grants. “It is surprising to me that after decades of efforts to understand gender inequality and to recruit and retain women in Stem, the agencies are not collecting the data,” said Heather Metcalf, who is the director of research and analysis at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). “The federal government cannot know if a problem persists or if interventions are effectively removing barriers to participation without meaningful data collection and analysis.”

Data presented from two of the largest U.S. funding agencies — both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as the considerably smaller U.S. Department of Agriculture, have shown that at least under their watch, the interventions appear to be working. They found no apparent bias when it came to funding. Rather, the data shows that women who applied were in fact slightly more successful than their male counterparts when it came to obtaining grants from the NSF, although men were more successful when it came to receiving funding from the NIH, which was a target of sequestration in recent years. Without any data coming from the DOD, DOE and NASA, who are collectively responsible for over $4 billion (£2.7 billion) in grant funding each year, and who tend to be focused on materials and branches of engineering that have typically been considered the most problematic for gender equality, the picture remains a rather incomplete and unsettling one. “It’s not a matter of whether gender bias exists or not. There is a lot of evidence that it exists,’ says Metcalf. “Data can make people more aware of their biases so that they can take steps to ensure it does not influence the decisions they make in the work environment.”

One of the three Congresswomen responsible for the investigation — Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, has recently introduced legislation which would require all government research agencies to collect and have available demographic information on their applicants. The three Congresswomen have recently written a letter to the directors of these funding agencies requesting that they begin collecting demographic data for their grant applicants. AWIS, along with several other U.S. professional organisations, are openly voicing their support for the three Congresswomen and this measure, as they continue to pursue for a greater deal of transparency in STEM research funding. A great deal of the public are also unaware of the process involved in obtaining government funding for scientific research, and perhaps this new legislation if enacted could also put the process more into focus, benefitting more people than just women in STEM careers.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Americans Are Drinking More Heavily, Especially Women

Whether quaffing artisanal cocktails at hipster bars or knocking back no-name beers on the couch, Americans are drinking more heavily – and binge-drinking more often, too, concludes a major study of alcohol use.

Heavy drinking among Americans rose 17.2 percent between 2005 and 2012, largely due to rising rates among women, according to the study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines heavy drinking as exceeding an average of one drink per day during the past month for women and two drinks per day for men. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on a single occasion.

The increases are driven largely by women’s drinking habits as social norms change, researchers found. In Santa Clara County, Calif., for example, women’s binge drinking rates rose by nearly 36 percent between 2002 and 2012, compared with 23 percent among men.

Nationwide over the course of the decade, the rate of binge drinking among women increased more than seven times the rate among men.

“It seems like women are trying to catch up to the men in binge drinking,” said Ali Mokdad, a lead author of the study. “It’s really, really scary.”

The study is the first to track adult drinking patterns at the county level.

Madison County, Idaho, reported the lowest rate of binge drinking in 2012, at 5.9 percent, while Menominee, Wis., had the highest, at 36 percent.  Hancock County, Tenn. had the fewest heavy drinkers (2.4 percent of residents) and Esmeralda County, Nev., recorded the most (22.4 percent).

About 88,600 U.S. deaths were attributed to alcohol in 2010, the researchers note, and the cost of excessive drinking has been estimated at more than $220 billion per year.

womandrinkThe increase in binge drinking doesn’t surprise Terri Fukagawa, clinical director of the New Life Recovery Centers in San Jose, Calif., where 15 of her 24 treatment beds are filled with clients primarily addicted to alcohol. She said she’s seen more people seeking treatment for alcoholism in the past four years.

Still, she noted, “there are a lot of people still out there needing treatment, but they won’t come in unless they have a consequence like losing a job or [getting] a DUI. They think they have control over it.”

Public health experts offer a number of cultural and economic explanations for the increase in drinking.

Social norms have changed – it’s now more acceptable for women to drink the way men traditionally have, said Tom Greenfield, scientific director at the Alcohol Research Group at the Oakland, Calif.-based Public Health Institute.

Young people are more likely to binge drink, and affluent people have the money to drink more. So the influx of wealthy professionals in cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland – many in hard-working, hard-partying tech jobs – may have helped spur significant spikes in drinking rates in the Bay Area and similar communities, experts said.

Taxes on alcohol have not risen along with the Consumer Price Index, so wine, beer and liquor have gotten cheaper over time in real dollars, he said.

Alcohol advertising, particularly for hard liquor, has increased in recent years. A Federal Trade Commission study found that companies spent about $3.45 billion to advertise alcoholic beverages in 2011.

Alcohol control policies, such as limits on when and where alcohol can be sold and how long bars can stay open, have weakened in past decades, Greenfield said. That may partly explain rising consumption nationwide, particularly in some states where “blue laws” once prohibited alcohol sales on Sundays or in supermarkets.

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed data on about 3.7 million Americans aged 21 and older from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing telephone survey of health behaviors conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

What the writing on the (bathroom) wall reveals about sex and culture

Pamela Leong, Salem State University

Scrawls, doodles and stylized text adorn the walls of public bathrooms in places ranging from elementary schools to dive bars: poems penned by forlorn lovers, pleas for advice and cartoons meant to elicit chuckles.

The graffiti is usually anonymous. It’s often personal.

While bathroom stalls are spaces of privacy, the graffiti is very much aimed at future occupants. And unlike most forms of written communication that appear in public spaces (books, newspapers, even graffiti on buildings), these images and messages are intended for the eyes of the same sex.

As a sociologist, I was curious about the content of the graffiti text and artwork, the patterns in the response and replies – and whether these responses would vary by gender.

So I entered ten single-sex bathrooms (five men’s rooms and five women’s rooms) on five floors of a northeastern state university’s academic building. Each bathroom contained multiple enclosed stalls, and I photographed each stall that contained hand-written or hand-drawn graffiti.

Out of the 202 graffiti collected and analyzed, 59 (29.2%) were in the men’s bathrooms and 143 (70.8%) were in the women’s bathrooms. (This finding seems to contradict reports that females are less inclined to vandalize, due to their inclination to conform to social conventions and norms.)

Poring through the images, I also noticed that the graffiti – aside from its obvious entertainment value – contained deeply held, gender-specific cultural beliefs.

Sex, insults and more sex

Sexually explicit graffiti mainly populated the men’s bathroom stalls, as did humorous graffiti. There was also no shortage of insults.

In fact, insults comprised the largest category of graffiti in the men’s bathrooms, and characterized much of the response and replies to images. These slights often centered on evaluations of the artistry and accuracy of the sketches; a drawing of a topless woman, for instance, received the critique, “Nice rack but man, only a face a mother can love. Shessh!!”

A separate sketch of a vagina elicited a number of disparaging comments. One person felt the drawing resembled more of a silverfish insect than a vagina. Others insulted not the image’s artistic integrity, but personally attacked the artist. Another lobbed insults against the artist’s mother (“Well it is your mom’s pussy”), while one respondent claimed to have had intercourse with the artist’s girlfriend.

The doodles in the men’s bathroom stalls were overwhelmingly sexual in nature, with rudimentary sketches of women’s breasts frequently drawn, followed by sketches of gigantic penises and female genitalia. Of the 59 distinct images or text appearing in men’s bathrooms, only three were of a nonsexual nature: a doodle of a cat up to bat, a goateed male face and a marijuana joint.

In the author’s study, most of the graffiti in men’s bathroom was sexual in nature – in fact, an image of a joint was only one of three images that were non-sexual.
torbakhopper/flickr, CC BY

Support, poetry and…poop?

In contrast to the male graffiti, female graffiti contained fewer vulgarities and sexual content. A tiny sketch of a penis pointing to verses from Psalm 23:4 was the only sexually explicit drawing. On the other hand, flowers, stars, faces – along with poetry and advice in stylized, swirly font – were prevalent.

Curiously, female graffiti contained more scatological content than the men’s graffiti did. Such graffiti included explanations for what caused the artist to defecate (coffee, the campus dining service), references to flatulence, and the obvious: that they were currently on the commode and, in some cases, were in the process of defecating (“Sitting on the toilet Hahahah”).

Although this finding was unexpected, health studies do suggest that women are both more knowledgeable and more forthcoming about health matters and bodily changes than are men. Gender differences in health disclosures and the reporting of health symptoms and physical manifestations could explain why there were more scatological content in female graffiti.

Budding poets abound in women’s rooms.
Jo Morcom/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

There are also cultural assumptions about femininity, which demand that women suppress open discussion of their bowel movements.. However, in all-female spaces – away from the male gaze and surveillance – women may resist these cultural pressures through explicit dialogue about fecal matters, a freedom traditionally allotted to men.

Meanwhile, philosophical and poetic graffiti dominated the graffiti of women’s bathrooms, followed by supportive graffiti and relationship-oriented graffiti. In sharp contrast to the insults that dominated the chain graffiti in men’s bathrooms, the response and replies in women’s bathrooms tended to be supportive of the original artist. Absent were insults.

Graffiti in women’s bathrooms tended to be more supportive.
Quinn Dombrowski/flickr, CC BY-SA

Replies included affirmations, such as “AMEN!,” “Thank you” and “That was deep. Keep preaching sister!!!” Some responses offered emotional support (“It will be [better]. I promise. Don’t ever give up.”), while others expressed shared understanding: “Same here,” “Samesies” and “Mine too.”

While insults did not typically occur in female graffiti, there were corrections. Replies to the posting “Nothing is forever…except for love” included various corrective quips: “+ herpes! LOL”; “Except God”; and “lol tattoos are.”

One person wrote, “Love, it is the greatest thing to the human race,” which was similarly met with (humorous) responses and corrections, including: “Can I return it?”; “Love is not a gift…It’s a privilege that must be earned, nourished, and respected…”; and “Wrong, Love is something humans made up.”

What does it all mean?

As a whole, bathroom graffiti seem to reinforce gender expectations, although there were occasional breaches of – even resistance to – some of these expectations (almost exclusively in female bathroom stalls).

Above all, bathroom graffiti messages convey male desire to maintain the masculine hierarchy. Insults, expletives and masculine bravado, as well as pictorial depictions of masculinity through drawings of erect penises, all serve as symbols of masculinity – markers that identify the graffiti artist as strong, powerful, competitive and sexually competent.

In their responses to certain images or phrases, men evaluated and regulated one another’s behaviors. If a male graffiti author expressed emotional turmoil, he was met not with supportive messages, but with a barrage of unrelenting insults. Power dynamics, therefore, are evident even in seemingly anonymous, unmoderated spaces – even without the physical presence of others.

The policing, however, was absent in the women’s bathrooms, which was consistent with the overall tone of the women’s bathroom stalls: cooperative, supportive, encouraging and generally free of aggression and competition. There is a sense of female solidarity expressed on the women’s bathroom stall walls (a solidarity that was conspicuously absent in the men’s bathroom stalls).

Since the date of the original data collection, some walls have been painted over, revealing new graffiti; in other cases, old graffiti remain, with new ones cropping up.

What remains unchanged, however, are the cultural messages about gender, and the intense enforcement of hypermasculinity.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

So You Have Dense Breasts. Now What?

Catharine Becker at her home in Fullerton, California on April 14, 2014. Becker started to get mammograms at age 35 because she had a family history of breast cancer (Photo by Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News).
Catharine Becker at her home in Fullerton, California on April 14, 2014. Becker started to get mammograms at age 35 because she had a family history of breast cancer (Photo by Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News).


Earlier this year, Caryn Hoadley received an unexpected letter after a routine mammogram.

The letter said her mammogram was clean but that she has dense breast tissue, which has been linked to higher rates of breast cancer and could make her mammogram harder to read.

“I honestly don’t know what to think about the letter,” said Hoadley, 45, who lives in Alameda, Calif. “What do I do with that information?”

Millions of women like Hoadley may be wondering the same thing. Twenty-one states, including California, have passed laws requiring health facilities to notify women when they have dense breasts. Eleven other states are considering similar laws and a nationwide version has been introduced in Congress.

The laws have been hailed by advocates as empowering women to take charge of their own health. About 40 percent of women have dense or extremely dense breast tissue, which can obscure cancer that might otherwise be detected on a mammogram.

But critics say the laws cause women unnecessary anxiety and can lead to higher costs and treatment that doesn’t save lives or otherwise benefit patients.

Catharine Becker of Fullerton, California, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at 43 despite having a clean mammogram.  The mother of three didn't know she had dense breast tissue until after she was diagnosed (Photo by Heidi de Marco/Kaiser Health News).

“While I think the intent of these laws is well meaning, I think their impact is going to be a significant problem, where we end up doing more harm than good,” said Dr. Laura Esserman, a University of California-San Francisco surgeon and breast cancer specialist.Typically, the laws require a notice be sent to a woman if she has dense breast tissue seen on a mammogram. Some notifications suggest that a woman talk to her doctor about additional screening options.

But in some states, not including California, the laws go further by requiring health providers to offer a supplemental screening like an ultrasound to women with dense breasts even if their mammograms are clean. Connecticut, Illinois and Indiana evenrequire insurers to pay for screening ultrasound after mammography if a woman’s breast density falls above a certain threshold.

Otherwise insurers do not routinely cover supplemental screening for women with clean mammograms, even if they have dense breasts. The Affordable Care Act does not require it.

The problem, Esserman says, is that no medical consensus exists on whether routine supplemental screening for women with dense breasts is worthwhile.

A recent Annals of Internal Medicine study using computer modeling found that offering an ultrasound to women with dense breasts after a clean mammogram would not significantly improve breast cancer survival rates but would prompt many unnecessary biopsies and raise health care costs.

Dr. Jane Kakkis, a breast cancer surgeon in Fountain Valley, California, supports dense breast notification laws (Courtesy of Dr. Kakkis).

Another study conducted in Connecticut after its notification law went into effect found that supplemental ultrasound screening for women with dense breasts did find a few additional cancers – about three per 1,000 women screened – but the probability that such screenings would find life-threatening cancers was low.Dense breast notification laws have added another layer of complexity to the long-running and often emotional debate over how best to screen women for breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer among American women, behind skin cancers, and the second leading cause of cancer death. An estimated 231,840 U.S. women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society.

About 38.5 million mammograms are performed each year in an attempt to find signs of cancer early enough to treat it successfully. Emerging technologies like tomosynthesis, a 3-D digital X-ray of the breast, may become cheap enough to replace conventional mammography and make the notification laws irrelevant, but their widespread use is years away.

Edith Santos, Becker's mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 56. This picture was taken two weeks after her lumpectomy (Becker Family Photo).

For a long time, women were advised to start yearly mammograms at about age 40, but in 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued controversialrecommendations that most women without a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors should wait until age 50 to begin mammograms, and repeat them every two years. Patient advocates decried the recommendations as “rationing” preventive health care for women.

In the meantime, Nancy Cappello, an education administrator from Connecticut, was pushing to pass what became the nation’s first dense breast notification law. Just two months after a clean mammogram, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.  She had extremely dense breasts, something her radiologist knew but Cappello was not told. Dense breasts have more glandular and fibrous tissue, which block the X-rays used in mammograms more than fatty tissue does.

Eventually, she founded the patient advocacy organization  and took her campaign national.

“There’s no evidence that we’re scaring women. Most women I’ve talked to are very happy to get these notifications,” said Cappello, whose cancer is in remission. “We want to make informed decisions…to have a better chance of surviving the disease.”

Dr. Jane Kakkis, a breast cancer surgeon in Fountain Valley, Calif., supports dense breast notification laws and testified in front of Nevada lawmakers before that state passed its law in 2013. Like Cappello, she dismisses concerns that the notification laws will cause undue fear.

“You have no idea what fear is until you have a cancer that’s already spread to your lymph nodes,” Kakkis said. “Patients will say in disbelief, ‘but I just had a mammogram and it was normal.’ They can’t believe how advanced it is. Dense breast notification is bringing up a whole conversation about risk that wouldn’t come up otherwise.”

Caryn Hoadley, 45, from Alameda, California, with her two children. Hoadley received a letter that said her mammogram was clean but that she has dense breast tissue, which has been linked to higher rates of breast cancer (Courtesy of Poppins Photography).

One of Kakkis’ patients, Catharine Becker of Fullerton, was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. She’d felt a lump three months after a clean mammogram. Because Becker had a family history of breast cancer – her mother died from the disease – she started mammograms early, at age 35. But they never showed any cancer. Until she was diagnosed, she didn’t know she had dense breast tissue.

“To be told at age 43 I had stage 3 cancer after a clean mammogram was really a shock,” Becker said, crediting her survival to breast self-exam and her doctors. “I’d rather have more information than less.”

Women with moderately dense breasts have about a 20 percent higher chance of getting breast cancer than women who don’t. Those with the highest-density breasts have about double. To put these numbers into perspective, if an average 50-year-old woman has a 2.38 percent chance of getting cancer in the next 10 years of her life, a woman with the highest density breasts would have a 4.76 percent chance of being diagnosed.

New ways of classifying dense breast tissue could put even more women in the category of receiving dense breast notifications, said Dr. Priscilla Slanetz, who recently wrote a New England Journal of Medicine article questioning the effectiveness of dense breast notification laws.

One reason she wrote the article, she said, was “in our state [Massachusetts] very few of our primary care providers have any knowledge about breast density and strengths and limitations of these different tests” for supplemental screening.

The same may hold true in California, where a small survey of primary care doctors found that only half of them had heard of the state’s 2013 dense breast notification law and many felt they didn’t have enough education to address what breast density meant for their patients.

On this point, both supporters and critics of the laws agree: doctors need better tools to help their patients identify their individual cancer risks.

To that end, specialists are developing more personalized screening protocols that result in low-risk women being screened less often than higher-risk women.

“It’s not rationing, it’s being rational,” said Esserman, who has a $14 million grant to study the issue.   “We should be testing different approaches for screening women with dense breasts, and then pass legislation once we know what to do.”

Women still find it tough to reach the top in science

Women are playing an increasing role in science today but there are still barriers that can prevent them from achieving success comparable to their male colleagues. This feeds the argument that there is a gender pay gap in earnings in science, although that doesn’t tell the full story of the challenges facing women scientists.

The Institute of Public Affairs senior researcher Mikayla Novak took the opportunity on International Women’s Day to exhort us to “avoid sensationalist, but misleading average pay gap statistics”, and instead focus on individual choices.

She argued that:

Australian girls generally perform better than boys at school, but tend to prefer enrolling in humanities tertiary courses which subsequently pay relatively lower wages in employment, rather than the sciences, which offer higher career wages.

But Novak is wrong to suggest that the sciences offer “higher career wages”.

Postgraduates holding a degree in the sciences on average earn the same as graduates in other fields. The income range is significant among science graduates, as opposed to medicine/health professionals, management and commerce, or engineering graduates who are overwhelmingly in the higher income bracket.

The graph (below) shows the income profile of postgraduates holding a degree in the sciences generally is about average relative to graduates in other fields.

Weekly income of postgraduate degree holders in full time employment, by field of study, 2011.
Data from 2011 ABS Census of Population and Housing (ACER 2012), Author provided

But the graph also shows that income is quite diverse among science graduates, as opposed to that among ,for example, Management and Commerce graduates who overwhelmingly are in the higher income bracket.

My 2009 report on Women in Science in Australia presents data on participation in higher education that graphically illustrates established patterns of low levels of participation in engineering and IT and low rates of retention and success in and beyond the post-doctoral phase for all other broad fields of science.

In 2007 women constituted more than 50% of Natural and Physical Sciences bachelor degree completions but less than 15% of level D and E academic staff (typically associate professor and professor levels).

This pattern has been documented in Australia over the past 20 years, beginning with the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Advisory Group (WISET) in 1995.

Career paths

To generate improved understanding of science careers and choices our most recent research on Women in the Science Research Workforce focuses on the career paths and career decisions of women and men in the very fields of science that have attracted women in significant numbers: the biological and chemical sciences.

These two disciplines have experienced significant female participation up to the doctoral level for several decades.

But sadly, despite the fact that outstanding women are increasingly seen achieving at the highest levels and taking key roles in the fields of science and technology, women’s participation in the science research workforce continues to be characterised by low-levels of retention and success beyond the post-doctoral career stage.

The most recent data is graphically represented below, where Level A is entry level to an academic research career and level E is a professorial level appointment.

See how the participation of women falls.
Author provided

Is this evidence of poor career choices?

It is clear there is a significant difference between postgraduate aspirations and the reality of employment opportunities.

The majority of postgraduate students in the fields of biology and chemistry aspire to secure academic and research roles within the academy and research institutes.

When they commence their post-graduate studies they appear unaware of the realities of generational change in patterns of employment – an impossibly competitive research funding environment and pervasive casualised/fixed-term and insecure employment.

This means that most research science graduates are now part of a freelance industry, for which they are unprepared.

Choices or non-choices?

The manner in which most science research careers are currently constructed means that women hit the wall at the post-doctoral career stage and many branch into related fields in industry.

In addition, among our 1,300 survey respondents, three times the number of women than men have taken significant periods of leave during the course of their careers. A significant number of women believe that this has affected their career progression.

There are also income gaps between men and women who are employed full-time, especially pronounced in the higher income categories. Men reach higher income categories at a younger age and a small but stable proportion of women remain in the lower income categories for all ages.

So who does succeed in science?

Our research tells us that in addition to being meticulous and hard working opportunities exist for those who have – and have been supported and mentored to have – the confidence and optimism, self-assertion and bravado as well as the intellectual and technical ability to succeed in what some describe as a “tournament” but we think of as a marathon.

This includes those whose life circumstances enable them to commit to cultures of long hours for “greedy” organisations, full-time employment, and the political skills and resilience to negotiate a highly competitive and insecure employment/funding environment over a career lifetime.

Importantly, an intensive period of research productivity in the post-doctoral career stage – a critical stage for family formation for women – is key to establishing a career as an independent researcher.

How far have we come?

It is salutary to realise that philosopher Max Charlesworth and colleagues, in their 1980s study Life Among the Scientists on Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), captured a time when choices were more straightforward.

The people who worked at the Institute formed two quite distinct social groups –- the scientists (primarily male) and the support staff (primarily female). The laboratory and animal technicians were recruited at the end of their secondary schooling -– bright young women, but not bright enough to have gained a place in a medical degree.

These young women were believed to be “more tractable and more tolerant of routine than men” and “prepared to take a properly respectful attitude towards junior scientists”.

But even for the best and brightest of these technical trainees (who were expected to develop the ability to carry out independent bench work) there were poor career prospects.

The Institute did not expect its trainee technicians to make their career there.

Have things changed?

Today, much of the bench work and the long hours of laboratory science in universities and research institutes are the responsibility of doctoral students and post-docs. In the biological and chemical sciences most are women, and only some are lucky enough to be working at WEHI, where the gender agenda is being taken seriously.

We would no longer assert that there is a choice to be scientists or have a family. Women are as competent and capable as men and should have the same opportunity to shape society and their own lives.

But in reality, through the structure, funding and expectations of science research, we constantly reinforce a reality that is a gendered non-choice. Supporting women to fit the model of the “ideal scientist” is not the solution.

We need to recognise and make sure that there are many ways for women and men to succeed in the marathon that is a science research career.

Although the research tells us that scientists are motivated by their passion for their field of study this passion is sustained through adequate research funding, secure employment opportunities, equitable pay, and career pathways that enable mobility between the academy and industry.

This month’s changes to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)Administering Institution Policy reflect the need for more to be done to support women to achieve seniority.

The required provisions outlined include an institutional strategy, mentoring and skills training, parental and carers leave and return to work provisions, remuneration equity, employment and retention strategies and child care support.

These are welcome and necessary steps, but the bigger issue is can the very paradigm of how we do science research be changed to move from accommodation of women to a new paradigm that reflects the diversity of individual capacity and offers the opportunity for genuine life choices.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Inequality in China and the impact on women’s rights

In 1995, China hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, which produced the Beijing Platform for Action, a document outlining concrete measures to achieve gender equality worldwide. Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon declared “Women are not just victims; they are agents of progress and change,” at the 59th meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Yet today China’s authorities are actively thwarting women’s ability to act to achieve their goals.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, police detained five women’s rights activists planning an action to raise awareness about sexual harassment on public transportation. The United States has since demanded their release.

Why are China’s authorities threatened by the efforts of these women?

Overall inequity may disproportionately affect women

Let’s put the answer in context. Chinese society is torn by widening inequality. China has one of the greatest economic divides among countries with advanced economies, surpassing the United States. (China’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution, is .53, compared to .45 in the US and .34 in India). In a society that just over two decades ago was among the most equal, these new social divisions generate tensions and conflict.

In 2005, the last time the government released its count, 87,000 “mass incidents” or protests of various sorts were recorded. The nation’s president Xi Jinping recently moved to contain expressions of dissent. Social discontent stems from diverse sources, including ethnic tensions, housing and land displacement, pollution, and exploitative employment practices. One well-organized protest could spark a more widespread movement that might pose a threat to the political status quo.

Just two weeks ago, journalist Chai Jing released a sobering documentary about the blighted environment of China’s major cities, generated by over three decades of rapid economic growth. The exposé certainly struck fear into millions of citizens who were able to watch it before being removed from China’s internet platforms. While many citizens are concerned about air and food quality, mothers – who shop and prepare food for their children – are particularly disturbed.

Women’s solidarity around sexual harassment in public places may also catalyze their struggle for a clean environment, which in turn may inspire the environmental movement to action.

And let’s not forget that this all occurs in the shadow of the Hong Kong student democracy protests, which paralyzed that city center for weeks.

Authorities warn that non-mothers will be society’s ‘leftovers’

China’s women have plenty of additional reasons for discontent. The state-led Women’s Federation recently concluded a campaign that turned up the volume on the ticking biological and social clocks of successful professional women, warning that they would be “leftovers” (shengnu, in Mandarin) if they didn’t marry and procreate by their mid-20s.

A state-invented discourse on suzhi or “quality” emphasizes mothers’ central role in ensuring the future success of their children. This is a thinly veiled campaign to encourage women to prioritize the domestic realm over career, while ignoring the role of men in the household. Moreover, a matrix of state laws have made it quite difficult for urban women to maintain claims to the value of housing in the event of divorce, according to Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women. Rural women are also losing access to land rights.

Meanwhile, the wage gap between men and women has grown steadily; urban women now earn 69 percent of male wages, largely due to occupational sex segregation. My book, Markets and Bodies, follows women as they are channeled into low-wage, low-status consumer service jobs, in which they are required to learn the fragile femininity that justifies their placement in these positions.

Retirement age is another source of inequality: Women are legally required to retire between ages 50 and 55, whereas men’s retirement age is 60, giving them between 5 and 10 more years of wage-earning.

Might all this add up to an attempt to mitigate men’s sense of inequality by ensuring their economic dominance over women?

Porcelain statues at Cat Street Antiques Market, Hong Kong. The statue in the center of the photo casts a light on how femininity was perceived in Communist China in the late 1960s.
Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA

The Chinese Communist Party has always maintained a formal commitment to equality between women and men. In the 1950s it brought women en mass into the labor force, ended the practice of footbinding, and dramatically improved female literacy. In her book Only Hope, Vanessa Fong argues that the one-child policy led to greater family investment in daughters, when there were no sons with whom to compete.

Backtracks on original commitment to equality

China ranks 87th among the 142 countries studied in measures of gender gaps in economic, educational and political participation, as well as health, so its efforts toward parity surpasses many countries in the world.

But the Chinese Communist Party has a history of pragmatically prioritizing men’s over women’s interests, even while it made important strides to redress gender hierarchies. It put the brakes on implementation of its 1950 Marriage Law offering couples the right to divorce, when too many wives attempted to leave their husbands.

The party maintained men as the formal heads of household and women continued to shoulder a second shift.

Today Chinese leaders are dusting off Confucianism and founding institutes abroad in the philosopher’s name while, promoting the framework at home. The reemergence of a philosophy founded on gender (as well as generational) hierarchies must be alarming to China’s feminists. It may very well be a strategy through which the state, to use its own slogan, “harmonizes” social inequality.

Not just a return to the past

But growing gender inequality in China is not simply a return to past practices and prejudices. This is a new age of wealth accumulation that is unprecedented in China’s history. Women are being made to bear an unfair burden of growing inequality to placate potentially more powerful and restive groups.

It is difficult to say what will happen next. Government authorities allowed Chai Jing’s documentary to circulate longer than anyone imagined. We can also find some hope in the fact that vocal feminists hold positions in major universities and agencies. For example, Li Yinhe, who recently revealed that her partner is transsexual, is a member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. At the same time, substantial dissent will remain invisible to most as the government regularly enlists an elaborate grassroots network to quell disputes before they gain momentum, in a process Ching Kwan Lee and Yonghong Zhang call “bargained authoritarianism.”

In the end, the fate of women in China may be more likely to be “bargained” behind closed doors than fought over in the streets.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.