Aren’t all things better when they’re in balance? That is this year’s theme for International Women’s Day (IWD). IWD will be on March 8th, and this year marks the 118th annual celebration. Since its inception in 1911 in several European countries, IWD marks the progress made in gender parity.
While the US doesn’t recognize it as an official holiday, in other countries it garners more attention. Dr. Yulia Johnson of Des Moines, Iowa who emigrated from the Ukraine, recalls fond memories of the day. She writes, “Of the nine national holidays that Ukraine observes, Women’s Day is one of the most loved and enjoyed. Most of the country has a day off that day and even when it falls on Saturday or Sunday, they get the next working day off such as Monday. International Women’s Day in Ukraine is celebrated in the most thoughtful manner. Many activities take place to commemorate a woman’s importance, their status, their achievements and their rights. Conferences and presentations concentrating on women’s life, their everyday struggles, their rights and their history are held typically on this day. Celebrations all over the city with music and concerts are also customary. The celebration is also reflected in public life as men buy flowers, confectionaries and gifts for the women in their life given with the little tokens of gratitude and love. Flowers such as tulips and roses line the streets and there are displays in shops and marketplaces. Gifting flowers to women is not only a gesture of honor from their men, it also signifies the beginning of spring in Ukraine.”
Indeed, the progression of women’s rights is a kind of spring time or awakening, and it has been years in the making. Dr. Archana Shrestha of Chicago, Illinois reflects on her mother’s journey to medicine. “My mother grew up in India in the 1940’s and 50’s. She told me many times how she had to beg her parents to be able to go to school. Education at that time in India was a luxury more so than a right. Especially as a girl, it wasn’t seen as something she would need or be able to put to use as many girls at that time were married in their teenage years and most women were homemakers relying on their husbands to provide for them. But my mother excelled in her studies and was accepted to medical school. Her parents did agree to send her to medical school, and she became the most highly educated person in her family…My parents have always instilled in me the value of education especially as a girl. With an education, they would say, you never have to rely on anyone else for your survival and you will always be able to take care of yourself and stand on your own two feet.”
Like Dr. Shrestha my parents taught me that the only limitations I had were those I placed on myself. I never questioned that I would be able to achieve my childhood dream of becoming a doctor. In my sheltered childhood, I grew up largely unaware of the bias that exists against women. I went to a liberal arts women’s college, majored in Biology with plans for medical school, and remained only peripherally aware of women’s studies. It wasn’t until I traveled abroad and experienced a different culture that I became aware of the challenges that women face. After graduating college, I packed my naivete in a suitcase with my idealism, right next to the clean socks, and I left for Haiti to work in a hospital’s Women’s Health Department.
To describe the eighteen months I spent in Haiti as life changing would be like describing a Richter 9 earthquake as a small tremble. There are no words to adequately illustrate the poverty and struggles of daily life there. Resources are insufficient making it difficult to rise above the poverty line. Girls are less likely to graduate from secondary school than boys, and women are more likely to live in poverty. Lack of education and limited access to health care and contraception contributes to women’s second-class status and limits their chances of improving their life circumstance. Despite these inequalities I did meet some tenacious women, including the nurses who worked in the hospital, and the female physician who headed the Women’s Health Department. They were all indefatigable in their goals to succeed, and to help the women around them do the same.
Having witnessed such egregious gender inequality (and having experienced some of my own) I returned to the United States better able to see the gender differences subtly permeating my own culture. They are present even in the professional, and historically respected, role of physician. Throughout my medical career I have been addressed as “nurse”, “honey” and “darlin’” more times than I could count. I’ve been called by my first name while my male colleagues were awarded their title of ‘doctor’. I and my female colleagues have experienced sexual harassment, gender bias, maternal discrimination at work, and the “second shift” of motherhood at home. Physicians are not immune to the wage gap either. Female physicians earn less than their male counterparts, yet nearly half of medical school graduates in the United States are women. In fact, the percentage of female graduates in medical professions has risen over the last couple of decades. Dr. Danielle Lombardi of New York notes her graduating pediatric dental residency class was entirely women!
We have come so far since that first IWD celebration in 1911. Some days the progress is measured in inches and sometimes in miles, but each day brings a new achievement in equality. There is much to celebrate this year; women from different walks of life are breaking barriers. In US law and politics Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is the topic of two movies including “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex”, and 102 women were elected to the United States House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. In sports, a young lady named Toni Harris is the first woman to receive a college football scholarship for a skilled position. In the media, a documentary film about the stigma surrounding menstruation in rural India called “Period. End of Sentence” won an Oscar this year. In human rights activism, Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist, was a co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
The process of working towards gender parity doesn’t belong to one person, one country, or even one group of people, but it belongs to all of us. It must be accepted as a universal goal, and that is why this year’s theme for IWD “Better with Balance” is so important. There needs to be a balance between people, between genders. Gender parity will be achieved by communication. It will be manifest by not only addressing women’s health needs, but by addressing sexual education for both genders. It will be found in moments when parents teach their children how to talk respectfully to and about each other. It will materialize when time and effort are compensated equally. It will grow in families when the burdens of household management are distributed equitably. It will emerge when the faces of political leaders, business owners, athletes, community leaders, and media representations are indistinguishable from the population at large. To quote a famous female physician, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, “If society will not admit of women’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” That remodeling is a rebirth for all of us. It is time for spring. For more information about International Women’s Day, and to find out how you can get involved, go to www.internationalwomensday.com.
Dr. Alexandra Pinon is a Pediatrician living in San Antonio, Texas with her husband and four children. She is a contributing author to The Chronicles of Women in White Coats.