Should the Gender Gap be Outlawed?
Just this week, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional provision prohibiting discrimination based on sex. Hitting this critical threshold represents a historical win in the long-fought battle for gender equality in the United States — or it would have, at least, if it had been achieved by the legally-imposed deadline of 1982. Since it was nearly 30 years late, Virginia’s ratification encapsulates the spirit of America’s historical approach in this field: the law protects us from gender discrimination kind-of but not really.
For most women, gender discrimination is just a part of the fabric of daily life. It can be subversive and unintentional, or it can be overt — but the vast majority of our centralized leadership operates in a manner that suggests gender and sexual identity should be relevant factors in decisions like how much workers should be paid, whether children should be educated, and under what conditions we should have access to healthcare. The gender gap is a real threat to the health and wellbeing of women, girls, transgender, and nonbinary individuals everywhere, and it needs to be addressed. But can we eliminate the gender gap by outlawing it?
The Gender Gap is a Real Problem for Everyone
Let’s be clear from the start — the gender gap is very real. The direct difference in incomes paid to men and women in the labor force is well-documented and far from being fully closed. In 2018, gender-based pay differences in the U.S. workforce meant women had to work an extra 39 days that year to earn equal pay to their male counterparts.
One of the biggest factors in the gender pay gap revolves around the fact that most women are responsible for both the majority of unpaid family responsibilities in addition to regular paid work. Across the globe, women spend more time on housework and other unpaid tasks than men. While this work is critical for our economies and societies to function, the people performing it still must find other ways to earn the money they need to survive or depend on others for support. This state of things is not just unfair and oppressive to women, it’s a meaningful demonstration of economic waste.
For countries to be competitive in an increasingly cutthroat global economy, achieving gender equality is a must. But the gender pay gap is not going to close on its own, but the people in power are not particularly motivated to do anything about it. Most often, those who are setting national policy, allocating economic resources, leading companies, shaping markets, and determining who gets heard are not women or trans or nonbinary individuals who experience gender-based oppression personally. As a result, the powerful political and economic institutions of the world restrict women to minimum-wage, low-authority jobs.
A Century-Wide Gap
The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report analyzes 149 counties on four points: economic participation and opportunity, education, health and survival, and political empowerment. While baseline health and education for women and girls is improving, worldwide performance on other factors is far from impressive. Among all groups assessed, women are the furthest behind on power and influence. The economic opportunity gap is even worse.
It’s important to recognize that the world is achieving progress towards gender equality. The gains made already are largely the result of new platforms for women where they can speak out, tell their stories, march and demonstrate together, run for office, and to improve political and economic participation. And as women continue to win elections in record numbers, the tables are turning — but this change is happening very, very slowly.
Each country has its own expediency rate for closing the gender gap, and each measured category comes with its own unique challenges to achieving. The United States is looking at 208 years of sustained progress towards gender equality before it will see its gender gap closed. Pakistan and Iran are an estimated 500 years away, and Canada and Switzerland each have just over 50 years to go. But world political and economic power structures are constantly changing, and any nation would be wise to shore up gender equality policies to protect itself from the increasingly competitive forces of the world economy.
Equality Builds Better Economies
Worldwide, gender equality is such an important factor in economic growth that is maintains a place among the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Despite taking the spotlight in sustainable development, gender equality is far from being achieved. By avoiding the economic problems created by the gender gap, however, political and economic leaders self-inflicting harm onto themselves and their communities.
When women, men, transgender, and nonbinary people share decision-making power, more voices are heard. This translates to both a greater breadth of discussion for political and economic problem-solving, but perhaps even more importantly achieving equality means more people in society are being respected and effectively represented. Whether you’re running a country or a company, building a culture on this foundation puts down roots for sustained, long-term growth. Many companies have banned gender discrimination and its effects in order to protect their corporate cultures — should countries consider doing the same?
Outlawing the Gender Gap
The battle over the Equal Rights Amendment will play out in court, but the likelihood that the story will end with an constitutional amendment is pretty slim. However, with a bit of luck and a ton of lobbying, we may see the gender gap outlawed through the federal legislature.
Earlier this year United States House of Representatives passed a new law, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which intends to strengthen equal pay protects for women. With this new legislation, companies would be responsible for reporting how much they pay their employees and demonstrate that salaries are based on other factors besides on sex. Unsurprisingly, the bill is stuck in the Senate — a heavily gender-imbalanced institution made up of 75 men and 25 women — where it will likely die due to lack of bipartisan support. Republicans claim that this type of legislation discourages businesses from hiring women at all, as the transparency requirements associated with proving unequal pay serve as a deterrent.
As the (mostly male) representatives and senators of the U.S. legislature continue to debate the merits of equal pay, other nations are soaring ahead of us. Many nations have already outlawed their gender gaps — and they’re seeing some real benefits as a result.
Iceland Criminalizes the Gender Pay Gap
Iceland boasts the smallest gender disparity in the world, and it seeks to eliminate its gender gap entirely. This year, the island nation made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work.
Iceland’s law uniquely places the burden on employers to prove they are paying their employees fairly. Employees no longer need to take their case to court to be granted on gender parity. In fact, unequal pay in Iceland is categorized like a criminal health and safety violation for employers. A large majority of other countries continue to only allow employees to address their gender gap concerns through the court systems.
With this momentously progressive move, they joined the elite group of nations that have already had these laws in place for decades: places like the UK, Russia, and Rwanda. Rwanda and Namibia are the two sub-Saharan African counties that rank among the leading nations in gender equality. Rwanda, in particular, works hard to maintain gender equality in economic and political representation.
Rwanda’s Gender Equality Assurances Program
Rwanda’s political, cultural, and economic landscape completely changed following the horrific genocide the nation experienced in 1994. In the time since the nation has been rebuilding its government and economic institutions, however, Rwanda has worked hard to ensure gender equality.
The Rwandan government maintains a Gender Monitoring Office, which exists to ensure that public programs are complying with the goals of gender equality. The Office monitors compliance to gender-related commitments across public, private, non-governmental, and religious institutions. The Office also works to oversee services offered to gender-based violence victims and improve the effectiveness of violence prevention and response mechanisms. Additionally, Rwandans are recognizing the balance of family and careers by allowing women to benefit from 3 months of paid maternity leave, thereby making it an easier adjustment for women to return to the workforce after starting families.
The benefits of improving gender equality in Rwanda have been immense. Rwandan women have contributed to many of the progressive legal reforms that are helping the nation redevelop after the genocide. They have revised the Civil Code to provide for equal inheritance and succession rights between women and men. They’ve been rooting out and eliminating corruption. Women in the Rwandan parliament have influenced labor laws to promote equal pay and fighting to end gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace.
Though it is not as deep as it is in most place, Rwanda still has a wage gap. Gender imbalances persist despite monumental efforts to achieve equality. The majority of Rwandan women are still faced with poverty, violence, and patriarchal attitudes. But because Rwandans see the need for gender issues to be a part of every conversation, they are actively improving the quality of life for families, education, budget, agriculture, and infrastructural development. In Rwanda today, women earn 88 cents for every dollar that men do — better than the 79 cents on the dollar U.S. women earn relative to their male counterparts, but still not full pay parity.
Gender promotion is not just a political talking point, it is becoming a best practice in Rwandan government values. Rwanda, Iceland, and other places that have recognized the damage done by gender inequality in political, economic, and social institutions have outlawed their gender gaps — and perhaps the United States should follow suit.