"Women In The Developed World Have Never Had It So Good"

The Economist has opened a debate between NOW's Terry O'Neill and author Richard Donkin. The topic? Whether or not women enjoy "immeasurably better lives" than they used to.

67% of Economist readers agree with the opening premise. Richard Donkin, author of The Future of Work, also agrees, writing:

When asked to argue for this motion, it seemed like a straightforward task. The proposition is what Americans like to call a "no-brainer". Well it is, isn't it? How could anyone argue that the lot of women has not improved immeasurably in the past century?

They got the vote, they got the pill, they got relatively easy divorces when their marriages didn't work out plus a fair share of the spoils, they got multiple orgasms, trouser suits, retail therapy, pedicures and the Chippendales; and they got the keys to the executive lavatory. [...]

To say that women have never had it so good is not to say that they cannot have it better. There is still much work to be done, breaking through those corporate glass ceilings, still work to be done on equal pay and equal opportunities, still work to be done in removing an almost inbred resistance in men to domestic chores and still work in coaxing some men to assume an equal role in parenting.

Terry O'Neill fires back:

The "you've never had it so good" canard has long been used as a smokescreen by those who would avoid or deny society's most intractable problems. For women, it is tantamount to being told to sit down and shut up. We will not. The motion is insulting, and I reject it.

It is not good that the wage gap between women and men has narrowed by less than half a penny per year since 1963. It definitely is not good that because of gender pay discrimination women in the United States are at higher risk of poverty than men, especially in retirement. Denial of equal pay for comparable work is a form of oppression of half the population that underlies lower productivity, higher poverty rates, more old age poverty, more ill health and family instability.

Women in the United States do make up half the workforce, but that hardly makes us equal. Since the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women have closed the wage gap by a mere 18 cents. Today, women's median annual paychecks reflect only 77 cents for each dollar paid to men, with African American women paid 68 cents and Latinas just 58 cents (in nearly every arena, women of colour are short-changed at startlingly high rates).

(Pausing here: Thank you, Terry O'Neill, for pointing out that all women are not progressing at nearly the same rates. Native American women and Asian American women are often left out of these wage gap studies because researchers say the sample sizes are too small to be meaningful. However, Asian Americans overall face a wage gap that is incongruous with the higher levels of education Asian Americans as a group attain.)

As the two pieces wound down to their conclusions, many of the commenters (heading their comments habitually with "Dear Sir") wrote in to discuss their issues with the debate. The most common complaint is one I shared - the framing of the question isn't really designed to generate meaningful discussion. Instead, it invites the type of dodge the moderator engaged in when offering his interpretation of the remarks:

Proving that women still lag behind men, and indeed that they suffer from innumerable social ills, does not deal with the assertion at the heart of this debate: that they enjoy immeasurably better lives, in terms of incomes, opportunities and social mores, than their ancestors just a few decades ago, not to mention the millions of people in the developing world.

It's easy to measure progress by just looking through the lens of how far a nation has come. By that metric, just about anything looks like an improvement.

Women - Debates [The Economist]