An article in the January 25, 2010 issue of Financial Times Business Education (“Resolving a Taboo” by Della Bradshaw) made me think about how many liberties women in the West take for granted.
I dislike talking with some women about issues related to sexism because different generations seem unable to grok each other. As a 50-something year old professional businesswoman who works in an intensely male-dominated industry, I thought the bra-burning, man-hating women of the 60’s movements didn’t speak for me. Graduating from college in 1982, I avoided the term ‘feminist’ because it seemed to be a bit shrewish.
I had my own battles: I was one of only eight women to graduate in the engineering college in my university, I had professors tell me that I would be taking a job away from a man who might need to (gasp!) support a family. I was accused of having my husband, presumably smarter than me, doing my homework. My first employer did secret pregnancy tests along with the pre-employment drug screenings on female candidates, and when I became pregnant with my first child, refused me assignments that extended beyond my due date. My supervisor said he had to assume that I was going to quit after my maternity leave, until I proved otherwise by returning once I gave birth. He also told me not to expect big promotions, since women were too emotional to be supervisors and not good enough engineers to climb the technical career ladder.
My experiences aren’t from the Victorian era; they are within the lifetime of the young women who roll their eyes and dismiss me as being somehow irrelevant or, worse, not being able to really understand the issues they face. Recently, I was told by a white male with a degree from a name-brand school, that I didn’t “get” women’s issues, that I was part of the problem. I have never, not once, been asked by a younger woman to relate my experiences or asked for advice on how to overcome the roadblocks put in their way. One engineering student told me she didn’t need to join the Society for Women Engineers, a national networking organization, because “I don’t have any problems with the guys in my classes.” So, yes, there are real problems for women, I’ve experienced discrimination, and true equality is not at hand.
We women of the West, sitting in our corner offices, with our advanced degrees and freedom to pursue our own interests and destinies, don’t realize what a fantastic situation we have. Bradshaw’s article covered something so simple, so routine, that I was shocked that it had not occurred to me before.
Teenage girls in Third World countries miss about one week of school every month. Why?
They don’t have tampons.
They don’t have access to sanitary products, and menstruation is a taboo subject in so many cultures, that the issue is not even discussed. The girls get less education than their male classmates, which leads to lifelong lower earning potential and precludes women from entering politics or industry where they could work for real change for the women of their country.
The article I referenced discusses a trial initiative in four villages in Ghana where Proctor & Gamble supplied sanitary pads for all menstruating girls for a period of five months. The absenteeism rate for those girls dropped from 23.8 percent to 10.1 percent. Nearly 100% of the girls participating in the program reported that having the pads helped them attend school, participate in sports, and made their lives easier at both home and school. Professor Linda Scott of the University of Oxford, who coordinated the effort, reports that further studies in Bangladesh and South Africa will be used to start distributions in rural areas, focusing on areas where the taboos are the strongest.
Such a simple thing. Raising the level of women’s education and freedom is a prime indicator of the success of a nation. Countries where women are empowered have higher standards of living, lower infant mortality, and greater democracy in their government.
When I hear my fellow women count skirts at conferences or bemoan that women are shut out (which we often are), I think about this story and how a few cents’ worth of paper and cotton give me the freedom to pursue whatever I want.
And then I ask myself, what I am doing with this freedom?
*High Cotton is a 20th century Southern term that refers to being in good circumstances