March 8th is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day and I am spending it with the Global Women's Council of a F500 company. For me this is a fitting way to celebrate both the accomplishments and highlight the steps yet to take in corporate America - the women in the room have made it close to the top of this venerable company, and yet in all its history it has never had a woman CEO.
That said, I'd like to take this opportunity to cast a wider eye at what's happening to women around the world. Starting here in the US, last week the White House issued its first report on the status of women in 50 years. While the media overplayed the wage gap, there is a related factor that has worsened, the rate of women living in poverty.
As displayed in the Huffington Post, in spite of incredible leaps forward in level of education attained, 18% of women overall and nearly 40% of women heads of households live below the poverty level. In looking carefully at the graph, I noticed something disturbing.
- Both percentages were on an overall downward trend from 1964 to 1979.
- They rose during the Reagan years and stayed relatively high until around 1993 when Bill Clinton took office. During his presidency (1993 - 2001), the rates declined.
- During George W. Bush's tenure women's poverty levels increased again.
Federally, the revised H.R.3 would deny tax credits to businesses that offer employees health insurance plans that happen to cover abortion care, as well as disallow any medical deductions for expenses related to abortion. Women would not be able to set aside their own money in pre-tax health accounts for abortion coverage (hmmm, I wonder if their male partners could. So much for small government. You'd need an army to police the health policies of every company applying for tax credits and Health Savings Accounts of every woman!)
Several years ago two women - one anti-choice and one pro-choice - co-authored a book on reproductive rights. Though they had different perspectives on abortions, they found common ground when it came to preventing unwanted pregnancies. Shocking to the anti-choice author were the attacks she endured for her pro-contraception stance. Hearing them interviewed was the first time that I learned that the anti-choice movement is using abortion for a broader anti-contraception agenda.
This face of the anti-choice movement has been revealed again this month. For example, in Wisconsin the governor's budget would not only defund Planned Parenthood, it would reverse a state law that requires health insurers to pay for prescribed contraceptives. (No mention is made about whether he would reverse reimbursements for Viagra!)
Conservatism and religious fundamentalism are the foundation of these movements and both are on the rise not only in the U.S., but also around the globe - primarily in Muslim countries where unrelenting pressure is forcing women out of the mainstream and into the shadows. In emerging economies - as reported in Half the Sky - women and girls continue to suffer from sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence including honor killings and mass rape and maternal mortality, which needlessly claims one woman a minute. But in the marvelous book by the same title, there is story after story of women who bravely take the lead to tackle these brutal issues.
So, here's to International Women's Day and Women's History Month. We've come a long way, but we and our sisters around the world still have a long way to go. Please get active, take the lead and make a little history to help women continue to make strides in health & safety, education and economic participation.
Susan Colantuono is CEO of Leading Women and author of No Ceiling, No Walls.
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