The Gender Gap

10.26.12 Why the United States is No. 22 instead of No. 1 in making life better for its female citizens, especially moms.


My neighbor went back to work this week. Her baby is 12 weeks old and her maternity leave is over. She cried all weekend before the Big Day, dreading the moment when she had to leave her daughter. She thought she was prepared, what with the new back-to-work outfit, the freezer full of breast milk and the top-of-the-line breast pump packed and ready to go to the office. She thought it would be no big deal because her husband would be caring for their daughter while she worked. It’s not that she doubts his abilities as a dad. Heck no, he totally rocks it. It’s not that she doesn’t like her job. She does. It’s that she doesn’t want to leave her baby. She’s not ready. She needs more time. But time’s up. If she takes any more time off work, she risks losing her health insurance and any guarantee she’ll have a job when decides to return.

That’s how it is for mothers in the United States. Twelve weeks, if you’re lucky, to recover from childbirth, establish breastfeeding, figure out the whole lack-of-sleep thing, transition from being a couple to being a family, find the right child care and do all of that amidst mountains of laundry and diapers. Twelve weeks that aren’t paid for most women. In other countries, women get a year off, paid and when they return to work, they get financial help with the child-care bills. Of course, in other countries, women make the same amount of money as men too.

A reader sent this email recently: "I’m not going back to work after my maternity leave. There isn’t any good child care nearby and my husband can’t take time off from his job to watch our little ones. We’ll be OK financially, if we’re really careful. I’m buying a COBRA insurance policy for my kids, but can’t afford one for myself. Then, I found out my birth control prescription’s going to cost $80 per month without insurance. We can’t afford that, but we can’t afford another pregnancy either. What’s the cheapest birth control that works?"

In other countries, women don’t have to worry about health insurance, birth control and high-quality child care. These “women’s issues” are taken care of either through social, private or government services. But we all know these aren’t just women’s issues. They’re family issues, community issues and even men’s issues, but since women bear the brunt of these responsibilities, they’re often filed in the women’s column. That’s what we call a gender gap.

Which countries make life easiest on their female citizens? Every year, The World Economic Forum ranks 135 countries (encompassing 90 percent of the world’s population) on 14 indicators that measure a country’s gender gap in four key areas: economics, education, health and survival and political representation. By looking at factors like, how many years of schooling girls and women get, whether they can access health care, whether they have an adequate number of female representation in politics and how much money they make compared to men, they create the Gender Gap Report.

Where does the United States rank? 22nd. Last year, we were 17th.

Who’s first? Iceland has held the No. 1 spot for several years now. Next comes Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, the Philippines, Nicaragua and rounding out the top ten is Switzerland. Who else comes in ahead of the U.S.? Cuba, Latvia. It’s easier to be a woman in 21 other countries than it is here in the U.S.

Where are the worst places to be a woman? The bottom five are: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and coming in dead last—Yemen.

What are 21 other countries doing right that the United States isn’t? Women in those countries get better health care and educations, are paid better in the work force and not coincidentally, are better represented in government.

Here in the US, only 16.8 percent of congressional seats are filled with women. Is it any wonder then that our reproductive rights, health care, maternity leave and child care access—all issues that pertain most specifically to women—aren’t generous, fully supported and protected? Is it any wonder, when government leaders make ridiculous comments about rape and birth control that they follow up by politicizing our reproductive rights? In the case of my reader, is it any surprise she and her family can’t afford private insurance and contraception and can’t find good child care? Going out on a limb here, if women had full representation in Congress, these “women’s issues” wouldn’t be problems at all. We’d hold the No. 1 spot on the Gender Gap Report.

So here’s what we need to do, ladies. On Nov. 6, use your voice, vote and elect the candidate you think will best move the needle forward for women. Do not slack on this. Your only excuse for not voting will be if you’re actually in labor or in the hospital on Election Day. Then, think about running for public office. No, I’m serious. Why not you? You’re at least as qualified as many of our leaders and probably more. If you’re a mother, you’re already adept at running a household, holding down a job and keeping the peace and I’d wager you’re doing a better job than most of our leaders.

I’m serious about this. For far too long, American women have stood on the sidelines and let their voices be silent. If we want to make any change in the way women and specifically mothers are treated in this country, it’s only going to happen when women like YOU are fully represented. Then, when our daughters go on maternity leave, need birth control or get jobs, they won’t suffer the same indignities women today do. Final word? The best way to close the gender gap is for women to vote, run for office and elect women.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.

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