Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The entire human race should be equally entitled to optimal states of well-being, no matter the age or gender; however, women and children fall through the gaps in our health care system more often than any other population group.
Being a woman puts one at a disadvantage in education, profession, and health because of the lack of systems to accommodate our unique gender roles. Women are disproportionately affected by economic vulnerability, lower social status, and limited access to education compared to men. While we are bridging the gap in male and female access to education, we still fall behind in having women in leadership roles. Women make up most of the health care workforce but only a few of us hold positions in leadership and research. These factors are widespread and can obstruct a woman’s ability to advocate for her own health and make gains in improving the health systems. Women still earn less than men for equally valued jobs, bear more of the childcare burden, and face a higher risk of violence in their homes. The pandemic has widened the gender gap in labor force participation, risking decades of progress for women as workers and entrepreneurs. What are the barriers to progress and what are the ways to overcome them?
Glass ceilings and obstacles
Why do women need to face disparity? Why do we automatically carry this burden? We are born to the world naked, without any thought of what gender or roles we play. Why has the world put such value to men when we are all persons with the same agencies? Why do women face so many barriers just to attain equality? Men hold privileges and opportunities as default, while women need to attain them after decades of advocacy. Women are under-represented in leadership roles, and it takes us longer to get to top positions. Women still have only three-quarters the legal rights of men, on average, and fewer than half of the world’s countries have equal pay. Men have paid work of 7 hours and 47 minutes and usually only have 1 hour of unpaid care work. A woman on the other hand has paid work for 8 hours and 39 minutes and has 4 hours of unpaid care work on top of it. Even with this disparity and equal education access, a man earns more than a woman.
In the Philippines, it took 39 years for women to gain the right to vote. How many more years do we need to push against biases so we can create a world that gives equal opportunities and accommodations for women?
As a woman, I finished college and even had the chance to attain a master’s degree. Personally, it was not a challenge to get access to education or to be employed. I faced my glass ceiling when I became a mother. Have you ever heard of The Motherhood Penalty? It is defined by Global Women as “the systematic disadvantages that women encounter in their careers once becoming a mother. It encompasses everything from earning an average of 12.5% less across a working lifetime despite working comparable hours to male and non-parent counterparts in their working lifetimes, to being passed up for promotions and opportunities for advancement simply for being a mother.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mother. I take pride in being hands-on with my children. Being present in their early years of formation was an investment that entailed a lot of hard work. I was able to lay the foundations for their health and values. It may have meant a sacrifice to my career and my economic empowerment, but the gains are immense and could never be exchanged for monetary value.
However, the reality of my life as a woman meant every child conceived would mean a pause in my plans or to continue while towing children during trainings or deliver responsibilities while juggling breastfeeding and domestic work. A new child would never hinder my husband to put his projects or success on hold. He never had the burden of thinking about childcare. For example, when a child is sick, he never had to worry if he needs to reschedule a meeting or delay billings and reports.
We have the equal footing of having college diplomas, yet he earns more than I do. He enjoys the Fatherhood Bonus defined by Global Women as when a male is on a higher pay scale when his children are born. He became more poised to benefit from becoming a father. When I got pregnant, I had to stop my work to focus on the children; on the other hand, my husband got a promotion which would help his starting family. I am not bitter about it, and I thank the Lord for making him a successful entrepreneur with his industry and commitment. He is never negligent of his duties of provision to the family or to being a father, and most may say that it is enough. He satisfactorily meets his responsibility as the breadwinner; I do my role of homemaker raising happy healthy kids: win-win. Or is it?
Breaking the bias
“Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table” –Meghan Markle
For eight years I did not have a job, career, or income. This was a personal decision, not from the lack of opportunity. There were many opportunities, but it did not fit to what I needed to balance my ideal home and childcare setting. There were many happy moments of being a stay-at-home mom like witnessing the many firsts and the unlimited tickle time. But there were also dark days when I felt useless and defeated, I felt like I was not reaching my potential. I wash dishes day in and day out, with chores on a loop. It felt like I was running daily but never getting anywhere. You find yourself doing endless amounts of work only to find yourself back to where you were yesterday: cooking, cleaning, caring on repeat. What broke the monotony of chores was volunteering in organizing events, building a community, and starting a social enterprise.
When we had mommy meet-ups, events, community outreach, or trainings, we always had babies tagging along. Meetings would mean having babies grabbing on to pens and discussing agenda while babywearing and breastfeeding a child to sleep. Where there are meetings with Mayors or with partners or when trainings were conducted, we always were present as mommies wearing babies. Events would mean mommies busy with their responsibilities and daddies tagging along to care for the kids while mommies took some action: a “Modern Nanay (mom) and Modern Tatay (dad)” team! How amazing would it be to have a “Modern Family” break the patriarchal norm, helping each other achieve gender equality? Sharing the same opportunities for career development, economic empowerment, and care work.
A mother would never have dared to bring children to work, but out of necessity we had to. And we kept on doing it and it became normal for a “Modern Nanay” to do so. We would see babywearing, breastfeeding, and motherhood normalized because it was what more and more women did. It also meant fathers stepping up and sharing care and domestic work and workplaces adjusting their accommodations and policies for women with young children.
Bridging the gap
How do we bridge the gap? How do we break glass ceilings? How can we make it work for women?
In 2012, we started to raise awareness and advocating for breastfeeding. In 2015, we started our community figuring out motherhood and our problems together through the Modern Nanays of Mindanao. In 2019, I established a social enterprise after suffering from postpartum depression and a breakdown. ALIMA Mother Support Center is a haven for mothers like me who needed informational and emotional support. The provision of therapeutic massage and skilled lactation support goes beyond tending the physical health and places importance on nurturing the mother to invest in her mental health.
Breaking the glass ceilings and overcoming those obstacles was not easy. It was only possible when the issues became visible, when support was made available, and when investment in resources were given.
- Awareness and visibility
Keep showing up. Consistently taking up space makes our needs and situations visible. Use empirical evidence to back up our experiences to surface our issues and create awareness. Show more role models and trailblazers. We see Australian senator Larissa Waters feeding her baby in parliament, Italian parliament member Licia Ronzulli attending sessions with her child, and we even see prime minister Jacinda Arden bringing her daughter along to the UN general assembly. They are role models in balancing motherhood and leadership. We need more advocates to come together and speak up to raise awareness. We also need more researchers to prove these glass ceilings exist and to document interventions to overcome it.
- Availability of support
What accommodations and enabling environments are we willing to build for women? Do we allow children in workspaces? Can we continue work-from-home policies? Can we normalize productivity-based work instead of time-based work or clock-ins? What are the things we are willing to do to make unpaid care work lighter and the gender gap closer? Do men pitch in domestic work and care work to lighten women’s burdens? Are laws implemented and are policies in place to protect and support women?
- Investment in resources
Supporting women should not be limited to lip service and awareness forums. We must be willing to invest in them and in their dreams. Invest in building their skills and capacity. Give opportunity and capital to fund and start up their passions. I had start-up capital from my husband plus moral support that enabled me to create a social enterprise that helps the community and made me financially empowered. Three years into the business, I now earn enough for personal needs and make skilled breastfeeding support accessible. Access to mentorship through the Samya Stumo Fellowship gave me more clarity and opened opportunities to scale up my impact.
Bridging the gender gap and breaking the bias means winning for women. It helps us catch up to our male counterparts. A gender-equal society is a win not only for women but also to children, families, and society. Progress for women is progress for everybody! Women are natural nurturers. When we get leadership roles and more empowerment, we bring other women along. Human health and wellness are core foundations of a progressive society. Women are at the forefront of caring and nurturing; therefore, giving us the power to change and lead within the system would mean we are contributing to a world that is healthier and happier. A society where everybody is nurtured and nourished is one where we can all thrive and live our fullest lives.