Wade Channell is the Senior Economic Growth Advisor for Gender at USAID. During his 23 years in international development, he has focused on business and growth, and recently turned his attention primarily to issues of women’s economic empowerment. He currently manages work designed to address the needs of adolescent girls through market-based solutions, and a three-country study on the effectiveness of different approaches to supporting women’s small and medium enterprises. Here, he tells us why his life – and views – have a new focus.
I didn’t plan to be. I didn’t even want to be. I wasn’t raised that way. For most of my life, I was gender-blind, and wilfully so. No longer.
Maybe having daughters was my downfall as a chauvinist. I remember the evening when I was asked one too many times for a bedtime reading of Cinderella. Stories shape dreams, and this medieval tale of desperation in a world of relative poverty sent the wrong message: be pretty, marry a rich guy. Maybe I’m overreacting, but my deconstruction of the Disney dream woke me up.
I got rid of Cinderella and her scheming stepsisters. We started our own stories: a princess with an attitude, a reformer, a strong woman who challenged limiting norms. Our princess rejected the handsome prince until he became a mensch, an equal, a partner. I don’t know what those stories did for my daughters, but they changed me.
The change was not complete. That took a second phase. My daughters opened my heart, but evidence tore it apart.
It’s easy for a Western male to ignore the imbalance that still persists between the sexes. Many of us don’t see the problem: we work with or for strong women, we see women entering traditionally male industries, and we simply assume that this particular problem is pretty well-settled. And we are wrong.
Let’s start with the economic side. Women worldwide earn less — for equivalent work — than men. In the US, it’s about 20% less; in many places, it is far worse. “Women’s careers” are undervalued compared to men’s. They own less property, they get less credit, they hold fewer high-level positions, they inherit less, they have smaller pensions. We can argue that this is merely the way markets work, but markets respond to culture, and the threads of denigration woven through the culture of market actors have an impact. Women are, it seems, worth less.
In fact, economists do not yet consistently capture the value of “women’s work” — unpaid care — in national statistics. Women are responsible for housecare, childcare, spousal care, and eldercare far more than men. Sure, sometimes a couple works out a deal where one brings in the income while the other takes care of the unpaid labour. But for working couples, the imbalance still holds — women work more than men, 10 to 20 hours a week more.
Among feminists, we call this “time poverty.” It has an impact in business, on the job, in investment.
I wish those were the worst statistics. I wish the problem were economic. Unfortunately, the economics are the symptoms, not the disease.
More than one of every three women living today has experienced physical or sexual assault at the hands of a man. And those are the reported statistics. Rape, grouping, beating, abusive language, cyber-bullying. Fed up one day, a young British woman named Laura Bates set up a website for women to complain of harassment and assault. Today, www.everydaysexism.com receives thousands upon thousands of complaints, along with hate mail for the founder who has exposed this unseemly denigration.
And if those figures don’t bother you, try this: in 2012, armed conflict took the lives of 49,000 people — male and female; that same year, 419,000 women were murdered. Guess which made the headlines.
I believe in the social, economic, and political equality of women and men. I believe in justice, in fairness, in opportunity, in the possibility of a better world for my daughters, for their children and grandchildren, for both boys and girls, men and women.
I am a feminist. It took me a long time to get here, and I’m not going back.
This article was originally published on Medium.
(Picture credit: Flickr/UN Women)