Gender inequality: taking stock and looking into 2022

Originally published at:
By Jieling Liu, Tainan Messina, Fronika de Wit, Patrícia Silvério, Sofia Castelo

We recently came across the controversial cover of the Portuguese media Jornal de Negócios, which features a piece that took stocks of 2021 and invited experts to envision the future of the economy and society (see image below). The cover immediately renewed our discussions on the state-of-the-art feminism development in Portuguese society, and globally. We dug a few years back – e.g. 2015 and 2017 – and realized that this newspaper had remained the same way it approaches the subject of gender equality, which is to ignore it.

Covers of Jornal de Negocios in 2015 (left), 2017 (middle), and 2021 (right)

While it could also be the case of lack of awareness, it is not just in the economic sphere. We found a newly published book by Porto Editora: Pensar o Futuro – Portugal e o mundo depois da COVID-19 (see image below) featuring short essays by prominent Portuguese citizens from a wide range of sectors/fields –physicists, mathematicians, civil engineers, theologists, entrepreneurs, sociologists, doctors, economists, and psychiatristsEach essay “helps us to understand the essence of the problem, its possible consequences and, above all, helps us to separate the noise from the information”, as one reader reviewed, seemingly satisfied. The ratio of male vs. female authors, however, is only 13:1.

This lack of consideration of women in the public realm, in the Portuguese media, is popularly Hashtagged: #MulherNãoEntra (literally: woman not allowed). On the one hand, it is shocking to see such stagnated or even backlashed status of gender equality recognition into the year 2022, considering the country’s established European cultural, legal, and political framework. On the other hand, it reveals the banality of the subject still today, 45 years after the United Nations adopted the 8th of March as International Women’s Day (IWD), a global holiday celebrated annually to bring attention to issues such as gender equality, besides commemorating the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women.

Of course, no one should bring about the subject of gender equality just to make the numbers look pretty – rather, the knowledge and expertise of a given area should be the main criterion for the task. If these media and organizers argued that they have followed objective selection criteria for authors with the best knowledge and expertise, that is to imply that the women in these professional circles or the public realm generally lack the knowledge and expertise that they deem qualified for the job. But is this really the case?

Let´s look at some other data. The 2018 Census shows that women in Portugal constitute 52.9% of all PhD holders when the EU-27 average is 48.1%. Actually, back in the early 1990s, women in Portugal already were 48% of the population with higher education qualifications. Other data suggests that the number of Portuguese women legislators has increased about three times; as of 2018, they represent about 40% of all legislators of the country. The data confirms that women in Portugal are professionally qualified and have been so, for a long time.

One of the benchmarks for a healthy gender-balanced society is if women are paid equally as their male counterparts, as well as women’s autonomy in decision-making in the political arena. Portugal has one of the largest pay gaps among EU countries, of 16% (as of 2018). In Portugal, elected mayors who are women are 2.7 times more than they were twenty years ago (1998-2018), though still only constitute a small portion (10.4%). Another data suggests the average salary for a man with a doctorate degree in Portugal is around 2,400 euros compared with only 1,600 euros for a woman. These data mean that:

Even after reaching impressive education achievements with remarkable resilience, becoming genuinely qualified and gaining more legislative influence, the Portuguese women are still substantially underappreciated in the labor market.  

Percentages of women in legislation and women as mayors in Portugal. Figures from United Nations Gender Equality Observatory:

Moving further, it turns out that in 2019, globally, there is still less than 25% of parliamentarians were women and laws and regulations still restricted some 2.7 billion women from having the same job choices as men. Evidently, women in Portugal are not a particular case. So why? What are the invisible factors that still impede highly qualified and resilient women from breaking the glass ceiling?

Dr Angela Jerath, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and her co-authors found that, women operated on by a male surgeon more often experience complications and be readmitted to hospital than those being operated on by a female surgeon. The finding came from studying the records of more than 1,3 million patients who underwent 21 common surgical procedures performed by nearly 3 thousand surgeons between 2007 and 2019, all in Canada, a country ranked considerably high in gender equality and in public health. Her study indicates that gender inequality is much more complicated. The male doctors’ below average surgery performance on female patients suggests that it might not simply be the negligence of the gender topic, rather, could even be a subconscious disregard for women’s lives.

For subconscious matters, we need to turn to psychology and look into how such awareness was formed at the beginning of a person’s life, particularly the relationship of man and their primary caregivers. “Tell me about your mother” is stereotypically the line that opens a therapy session. It should be noted that the progress of feminism development should never have been viewed as linear, and it never will. Our society has been formulated throughout recursive circles in which a man’s notion of masculinity is formed within the relationships of him and both the female and male figures in his close surroundings. Therefore:

We need to look beyond the institutional factors and instead, sort the reasons from a deeper analysis of the societal psyche, in units of families and individuals, in both men and women.

On a daily basis, it is possible to realize here and there, how society is generally raised by sexist caretakers. A toddler boy falls down on the street and starts crying. Immediately a gentleman approaches only to say: Men don’t cry. But why not? The small things we pass on to the growing generation will reflect on the near future as they will be reproduced. And therefore, it is important to raise strong and free girls and to teach the boys that men and women are equal and that is ok to cry, among other things.

On the one hand, countless research has shown how girls and women are more vulnerable when hit by adversities such as climate change impacts, pandemics, and economic downturns. In such cases, their voice and presence could be further sunken. With school closures and social distancing measures, the unpaid care and domestic load of women at home have increased, making them less able to take paid work and balance it. But why are women being hit worse by that if there are families that have a male parent too? There are many reasons, one being that women tend to get paid less and therefore will most likely quit a job than men who earn a higher salary. Simple math! Moreover, the connection to the answer also lies in the patriarchal modus operandi of society, in which girls are brought up to take care of the household and men to provide.

In some cases, such as in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, information about COVID-19 is not even reaching women as differences in cellphone ownership, access to the Internet and educational attainment might be keeping them away from potentially life-saving information. As women tend to play an important role in promoting hygiene routines within the household and caring for family members, their access to reliable sources of COVID-19 information is particularly essential. That is why the UN defined the theme of its 2021 International Women’s Day “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” to stress the importance of women’s leadership and the necessity in safeguarding it in the adversity of the COVID pandemic.

On the other hand, women make up the majority of those who take care – from health care workers to caregivers to community organizers. Countless examples have also shown how women are better and more strategic leaders. Countries led by women have coped better with Covid-19 and led with much more progressive climate and health policies (see image below). For developed countries with less than 5 million inhabitants, New Zealand (led by Jacinda Ardern) has had far fewer deaths from COVID than Ireland. Germany and the UK have similar socio-economic profiles, yet Angela Merkel has handled the pandemic in Germany very successfully, and similarly, in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina safeguarded many more of its 150+ million inhabitants than its neighbor Pakistan. New Zealand has recently decided to ban cigarettes for future generations, Germany’s firm commitment to phase out nuclear energy remains a sharp contrast to the UK and France, and Bangladesh is, within limitations, known for actively growing mangroves along its submerging seafront.

Guardian graphic. Johns Hopkins University. Numbers rely on public data from multiple sources (data correct to 17 August 2020). Note: Researchers created ‘nearest neighbour’ countries to offset the small sample size, pairing countries with similar characteristics

Up till now, the data and phenomena we listed above have shown the limited progress far behind ideal gender equality despite decades of efforts, not only in Portugal but worldwide.

Even if the current progress could be anticipated in a linear fashion, it will take at least another 130 years to achieve an ideal level of gender equality. If so, the transitional stakes of climate change and public health consequences will be too high for our society to bear.

It is clear that the capabilities of women, especially in leading roles, deserve much more acknowledgement and public discussion than it currently does, in order to take gender equality on to a good direction towards the end of the pandemic and the number 1 existential task of the 21st century for mankind – fighting climate change. Now, more than ever, much of the progress done over the centuries towards women rights are retroceding, as the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. The UN´s 2022 International Women´s Day theme, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” also confirms this necessity.

UN Women; credit: Yihui Yuan.

We are a group of women, feminists, doctoral graduates, some are mums too; we lead by actively engaging in our own fields – biodiversity, urban planning, landscape architecture, waste, mobility through research, policy consultation, program design and implementation, and writing blogs too. On the one hand, we are glad to see more and more public advocacies like the UN International Women´s Day themes and the inclusion of gender-related goals in the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. On the other hand, we recognize how much is still to be done. This piece is written with the aim to take stock of the current situation and push the topic of discussion further ahead in 2022.

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