If you come across a tweet with the hashtag #StopTheRobbery in your timeline, you may notice that 23 percent of its characters are blacked out. Those tweets, generated on 23percentrobbery.com, are a visual representation of the 23 percent of wages women earn less than men globally. They promote UN Women’s Equal Pay Platform, which seeks to draw attention to this alarming statistic.
On Monday, I spoke with actress and activist Patricia Arquette and policy director of UN Women Purna Sen as they helped launch the platform. Arquette probably looks familiar - beyond her 30-year acting career, millions of viewers watched her give wage equality a shout-out after she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a struggling divorced mother in Boyhood in 2015: “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else's equal rights, it's our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Equal rights for women can sometimes feel like an impossible dream. A 2015 study found that, on average, American women born in the 1950s missed out on over a half a million dollars in lost wages by the time they hit 60. Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked America no. 45 out of 144 countries for gender equality. This is a time when the president of the United States has boasted about how he can freely commit sexual assault by grabbing women’s genitalia and reinstated the global gag rule that bans even mere discussion of abortion by NGOs lest they lose critical U.S. funding. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress has introduced a health care bill that constricts access to reproductive health services, reducing bodily autonomy, and limits funding to Medicaid, a program in which 69 percent of adult enrollees are women.
Arquette is in particular concerned about gender equality as climate change becomes a more dire threat in light of the administration’s science-averse stance. “We know from many studies that climate change will most horribly impact poor women and the children they’re trying to support,” Arquette says. “Since the majority of low-income earners are women, we have to make sure they’re actually making a living wage, not a minimum, minimum, barely-survive-on-crumbs wage. Actually living wage. And that way, it will give them a little bit of cushion for a shock that at this rate is going to happen from climate change.”
Though inequality may be annoyingly “stubborn and persistent,” Sen says, “I don’t think we should underestimate how far we’ve come.” Nor how much farther people will fight to go. It’s an exciting time for activism, Arquette says: “There’s people outside senators’ offices, there’s people making phone calls, there’s people sending postcards, there’s people going to marches, there’s people supporting Standing Rock and women’s groups in Standing Rock, and their access to clean water.”
It is critical for women and allies to continue to push for equal rights however they can because “historically,” Sen says, “the things that have been shown to make a real, substantial difference for policies that are gender equal have been women organizing.” And it’s not just a fight that must be shouldered by women alone. “There are so many men out there who were raised by single moms, divorced moms, have daughters,” Arquette says. “We know that change comes ten times faster when we bring in our male allies and they stand by our side,” says the actress, who was a single mom at age 20 when she gave birth to her son Enzo.
I ask what might happen in the coming years in this new atmosphere of protest and resistance, at a time when women’s rights are under threat. The priority, Sen says, is ensuring all governments make good on their promises of equality, specifically those in the 93 countries around the world who have pledged to support gender equality. “We will work and continue to work with every member state and every government to ensure those promises have been delivered. Women have been promised. They need to see this happen.”
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