Women's History Month good time to reflect on fairness

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

March is Women's History Month, and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer used the occasion during a visit to the Kenai Peninsula last week to highlight the status of women in Alaska.

The information bears repeating, because women may not have come quite as far as most people think. There's still a long way to go before the gender gap is closed. Some examples:

The education gap between men and women has grown narrower, but the income gap remains wide.

New Census Bureau numbers show that 23.6 percent of women in the United States have completed a college education, compared with 27.8 percent of U.S. men. That's up from 1970 when just 8.2 percent of women and 14.1 percent of men had earned a college degree.

Having a college degree means a higher income for both men and women, but it does not offer parity of earnings. The median income for women with a degree was $34,408 in 1999, compared with $49,982 for men. Among all full-time workers, women earned a median income of $26,300, compared with median earnings of $36,500 for men. In other words, women's median income equaled only 72 percent of that of men.

While women continue to make political inroads, they are still the minority in elected bodies. In the Alaska Legislature this year, for example, 13 out of 60 lawmakers are women -- 21.7 percent. The all-time high of Alaska women in the Legislature was 14, and that was in the years 1991, 1992, 1995 and 1996, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Women currently hold 72 out of the 535 seats in the 107th U.S. Congress, or 13.5 percent. That's the highest it's ever been -- up from 3 percent in 1979. They hold 13 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and 59 out of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Among statewide elected executive offices across the country, women hold 27.6 percent of the 323 available positions: four governors, 17 lieutenant governors, 13 secretaries of state, eight attorneys general, 11 state treasurers, four state comptrollers and six state auditors -- to name a few. Ulmer is the first woman to hold a statewide elected office in Alaska.

Gender inequities can be found in such things as prescription drugs. Women pay 68 percent more in out-of-pocket expenses for health care than men. One of the reasons is that most employee health plans cover Viagra and surgical sterilization of men, but do not cover prescription contraception for women. That's even though the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found that this practice violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That inequity is the target of Senate Bill 15, which has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. It should be, and it should be passed with all due haste. Inequities like this surely have no place in the 21st century.

Why should all people, regardless of their sex or age, care about these inequities?

For one, any time there's unfair treatment of any group of people, it sets the stage for the unfair treatment of other groups, maybe even yours.

For another, do we want the new millennium to be filled with battles that should have been fought and won a long time ago? These are not "women's" issues; they're people issues; they're family issues; they're fairness and quality-of-life issues.

Most importantly, don't we want our children, regardless of their sex, to achieve their dreams -- whether those dreams are in the stars or an elected political office or as a stay-at-home parent? Can anyone explain why women don't deserve equal pay for equal work? Do we really want today's children thinking that it's more likely they'll live to see life on another planet discovered than a woman elected to the White House?

Alas, women may have come a long way, but our culture still has miles to go before the gender gap is closed. That should be our goal in this new century.

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