Gender 2021: Post-Pandemic? Post-Beijing?

As we come to the end of 2020, we are taking some time to recall those things that we didn’t get to celebrate together. Fair enough. It isn’t that I thought of gender when I sat down to do an end-of-year reflection of this awful 2020. Rather, I just happened to be sitting down to write down my thoughts on gender on this penultimate day of 2020 and thought to myself: I should prepare an outline of what my main points might be. And oh yes, one of those main points is that this year of 2020 was the 25-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform and Declaration on the Rights of Women. Major events and visible displays of the anniversary had been planned for Mexico in April and then France in May, but then the whole process leading up to these events was abruptly suspended, and the main events were postponed until 2021.

We should look at what this 25-year review was intended to accomplish, even if the whole culmination of the anniversary has been delayed. For one thing, preparatory events have still been happening in virtual settings. These help to clarify what’s the point of an anniversary? Is it just to reflect on what has been or not been accomplished? Well, maybe this is enough. After all, it does seem that the general view is that this Beijing Declaration was the be-all and end-all of global statements on women’s rights. No further clarification is needed; no new negotiation on policy is proposed. And yes, there are plenty of areas where the good is to be praised while the bad needs to be condemned, where the aspirations have been or have not yet been met. The framework can guide us to identify action items where our efforts can be channeled, if we really care about it.

On the other hand, one might argue that 25 years is a long time for a world whose social consciousness has dramatically changed since that long ago year of 1995. The transformative nature of the past 25 years regarding gender equality – or inequalities – would suggest that we do have some updating to do on the Beijing Declaration. All that social media stuff, the financial crisis, growing disparities in economic wealth, climate change, the emergence of China as a global economic player – and drones and civil wars and populists and …. Well, here we are in a totally unexpected worldwide pandemic that has been the most dramatic change of all in our daily lives. (Maybe it wasn’t exactly unexpected by everyone. There were warnings, after all. But the tragic fact is that most of the world was unprepared, with mostly unexpected consequences.) Three of these transformative issues will be addressed here (intersectionality, applying a gender lens to the world around us, and better data for advancing gender-based initiatives), but the pandemic has simply thrown us into a tailspin, even with regard to these particular issues.

Coming Around to Intersectionality

When I was first mobilized into becoming a feminist, back in the 1970s, I was focused on doing something about the sex discrimination that existed in the American legal system and the cultural biases that supported inequalities between men and women in the home, at school, in the workplace and in daily living (credit, insurance, social clubs, fashion, sports).  I had been persuaded by the activists I met in the women’s movement that it was perfectly normal to have a family and live a normal life while also expecting that I should have equal say and equal responsibilities at home, have access to the same educational opportunities as men, get a job with equal pay and status based on my credentials, and not have to worry about opening a bank account or having access to a tennis court. I took the lead in my community to advance these concerns and to argue that it was in the best interests of both men and women to have equal rights under the law and in practice. It was how I ended up being elected to the state legislature and helped to draft legislation that removed all sex discrimination in the state’s statutes.

Some years later, I was in a different situation. I was still a feminist, believing in equal rights for men and women, but I was confronted with a situation where racial justice was more important than gender justice. In 1990 and 1991, I was called upon to work with the Business Roundtable on legislation that was intended to rebalance the civil rights laws on employment in ways that most of the business community was opposed to changing. My BRT team and I worked with civil rights and women’s rights leaders to come up with a consensus that was complicated in part by the different legal avenues for damages between gender and race. Our effort was aborted for other reasons but ended up serving as the basis for the legislation that was eventually passed.  But I came to appreciate that racial inequalities were more challenging to address than gender inequalities.

Another change in my thinking has evolved since then. In part it was driven by my shifting from a domestic US perspective to an international perspective when I was appointed as Deputy Director-General at the International Labor Organization in Geneva.  The focus continued to be on employment issues, but I was struck by the history of the labor movement that had included protective labor laws for women and children. Most of these are, of course, considered discriminatory against women in today’s world – prohibiting night work for women and children (but allowing the same kind of work in daylight hours?), prohibiting women and children from lifting heavy weights or managing hazardous chemicals or equipment (but not men?).  Although change tended to be in the direction of regulating working conditions for everyone, the issue of differential treatment is proving to be more complicated than that.

The term “intersectionality” is not all that new. The term comes from an article written in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw on race, class and sexuality. Her main point was that different groups of women live with detrimental inequalities that are attributable to more causes than gender inequalities and that the combined array of detrimental conditions can’t be separated one from the others. This helps to explain why the women’s movement in the US tended to be dominated by relatively well-off white women (like me) who were only preoccupied with gender-based discrimination. I was aware of the implications of this, even in the 1970s and 1980s when I encountered black middle-class women who told me that they preferred to be legally protected as homemakers and did not want to be expected to work outside of the home. What I did not fully appreciate then, however, was that poverty, race and gender would pile on the inequities in ways that are not solved by passing gender-neutral policies (like protecting dependent partners in a family without specifically protecting wives).

This phenomenon of intersectionality, then, requires looking differently at different clusters of women. It means differentiating on the basis of gender in different ways for each different cluster of circumstances. Women in lower socio-economic categories are especially affected with the combination of inequities. It isn’t only because they are women that they have lost their jobs in a pandemic. And it isn’t only because they are black or a woman of color. What the pandemic has exacerbated is the multiple barriers to equity that women of color in lower paying jobs have had to endure. They are the ones who have to stay at home to care for their children when the schools are closed; they are the ones who have to work in front-line jobs that can’t be done virtually; they are the ones who don’t have health insurance or lose their health insurance. Many critics of the health care system in the US cite this as simply another example of the heavy combined burdens of racism and sexism in American society.

Differentiating gender-based policies, though, encompass a variety of situations that might not have been fully appreciated when the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action was adopted. These include the issues of gender identity and the growing recognition of rights for the LGBTQ communities.  Then there is the whole range of sex trafficking, violence against women, sexual harassment and domestic abuse crises, and the aggravating impact of the pandemic on women in these situations.  Again, one could insist on “mainstreaming” the policies to manage these situations with gender-neutral language, but I do admit to having mellowed on the gender-neutrality idea here. As with the issue of the “hijab” (head coverings for Muslim women but not men), or the #MeToo movement, gender neutrality doesn’t really work in all settings. So “intersectionality” does call for more nuanced sensitivity to the mix of inequities that operate in the world around us.

Applying a Gender Lens to the World Around Us

The Beijing documents do suggest that global approaches to peace and security, humanitarian programs and even environmental issues should include specific provisions on how women are affected differently than men in these settings.  But having specific programs to accommodate their impact on women is different from applying a gender lens to the issue itself. What this entails is the inclusion of women in the decision-making structures for conflict management, in humanitarian program delivery, or in the articulation of  trade or climate change or biodiversity agreements. Greater participation of women in governance is, of course, an obvious part of this. It is reinforced by the need for sensitivity to the variety of ways that gender affects an individual or a situation. We are not operating in a gender-neutral world, nor am I suggesting any more that we should be moving toward a more gender-neutral world. This is a big change for me. I have come to appreciate that it is only through the active participation of women in these different settings that this gender lens can be fully applied.

How does this fit in with the notion that gender roles are primarily socially determined? This is, in fact, the premise behind the women’s movement that got me on board in the first place. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique that were so persuasive back in the 1970s. I have not been anti-male, either. The ideal is for everyone to live together with equal rights and shared responsibilities that do not get classified as either male or female. I still cling to that. But I also recognize that a gender lens comes from gender-based identities, whether genetically or socially determined. On health matters, where biological differences have justified protections for child-bearing and maternal health, one might still suggest that a gender lens needs to be applied to all health matters.

Most strikingly, there is merit to the idea that the participation of more women in traditionally male-dominated settings, like trade or conflict management could be a good thing for peace and security. The World Trade Organization should be commended for finally getting around to establishing an “Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender” – and for the prospect of a first female director-general once the Biden Administration gets its act together and returns the US to an active leadership role at the WTO.  The French have been requiring 50-50 electoral lists for various governing bodies like municipal councils, and I think this is a good thing, too.

The key here is that the intersectionality that calls on us to incorporate gender with race or other classifications also calls on us to finetune that gender lens to accommodate the diversity of ways that gender-based inequities affect different individuals and groups.  With the pandemic’s impact being so different for women in different socio-economic and ethnic groups, the gender lens helps us to recognize what this impact is in these different settings.

Data (and Research) for Gender Equity

The 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action will feature a two-pronged Generation Equality Forum in Mexico and France in 2021.  Proposals are being developed through “curated discussions” in this pandemic-driven environment, for six action coalitions. These include action coalitions on (1) gender-based violence, (2) economic justice and rights, (3) bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights, (4) feminist action for climate justice, (5) technology and innovation for gender equality, and (6) feminist movements and leadership. In addition, there is a proposal to draft a new Compact for Women, Peace and Security.

One could reflect at length on each of these issue areas, but I would conclude this commentary by focusing on the importance of data for a better understanding of the intersectionality of gender inequities in all these areas. What gets measured gets done. That is for sure. And it needs a gender lens, too. While this commentary has not been documenting the evidence-based data for either intersectionality or the usefulness of a gender lens, I can appreciate the message that good data is important. The fairly modest data gathering to examine the impact of the pandemic on women generally but also on women in specific socio-economic and racial categories has been especially striking. It needs to be even more focused and, yes, disaggregated.

It isn’t just data gathering on its own, either; we need to have a research agenda oriented to identifying and focusing on the problems, the objectives and the recommended solutions and then to build a suitably disaggregated database to conduct the analysis.  For example, the early mortality data on COVID-19 are showing a higher death rate for men than for women, at least in the higher-income countries where men have a higher incidence of co-morbidities than women. On the other hand, the evidence seems to be growing that women are suffering more than men in both health and economic terms – but also that different groups of women are being affected differently. So let’s apply a gender lens and put that data to good use. I am hopeful that the looming policy issues will include both family leave and health coverage.

Looking to the future, I am hopeful that one of the crises brought on by the pandemic, the failure of a decent work/family nexus for low-income women in the US, will benefit from reforms to both family leave and health coverage. But one can argue that a data-driven understanding of the gender dimensions of this pandemic could make a difference going forward – not only on such issues as family leave or health coverage – but also in ways that tackle inequalities more broadly.  It is noteworthy that the OECD held a conference in December on “Empowering Women as Drivers of Recovery and Growth”. It featured a keynote lecture by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton on inequalities pre-pandemic, inequalities in the pandemic and inequalities after the pandemic. Panelists addressed both the economic case and the financial case for empowering women to drive recovery and growth.

Data gathering needs to be part of how we can understand the what and the how of new opportunities for recovery and growth. When that data gathering is conducted with a gender lens but also an intersectional one, I am sure that it will show that empowering women will actually boost recovery and growth. And I look to the Generation Equality Forum in 2021 to adapt its action coalitions to a transformed post-pandemic world and thus be one of the postponed events from 2020 worth waiting for.

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