Friday, March 14, 2008

Honoring women

This was my column last Monday, March 10. Sorry for the late post, it's been a really hectic week.

Last Saturday was International Women’s Day.

While driving to my classes in Quezon City, I tuned in to an AM radio station and chanced upon a spirited discussion on the relevance of setting aside a special day for women. The clueless broadcaster—obviously male, and I wondered if his rather archaic views were representative of the attitude of most men in this country—was ranting about the relevance (or irrelevance) of setting aside a special day for women. His barely disguised political incorrectness was anchored on the convoluted theory that celebrating women’s days was an exercise in reverse discrimination.

My automatic reaction was to wonder what was so wrong and objectionable in a situation where certain days, or all right—even each day of the year—were set aside for particular causes or segments of the population. What exactly was being taken from anyone by the celebration of international women’s day?

In many countries, March 8 is actually considered a national holiday in recognition of the distinct and important roles that women play in society. It’s also a day set aside to commemorate and remember the struggle women have waged through the decades in order to gain certain liberties and freedoms that were not made available to them in the past—such as the right to vote or the right to be considered co-equal in society.

We must remember that in many countries and cultures, it took a lot of hard work on the part of women before they were awarded basic rights. And even today, in many countries, these rights are still not afforded to women.

The women’s movement has gone a long, long way but the struggle is far from over. As someone who consults with various non-government organizations working with women in rural areas such as the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, I am familiar with the difficulties many women in this country contend with every day. We may have a woman president and we may be considered a highly matriarchal society, but the truth is that many if not most of the women in this country continue to suffer, and mostly in silence.

There is a dictum that says, “in a poor country, women are poorer.” This is sadly true in the Philippines, particularly in rural areas where mothers, sisters and even grandmothers take in the burden of not only of caring for the old and the young but also in sustaining the family’s welfare. This is indulging in generalizations, but in many cases, men tend to squander whatever little resources the family has in certain vices and it is left to the women in the family to worry about putting food on the table and even money for the children’s schooling.

In fact, even among many of my colleagues, it is the women who bear the heavier brunt of the responsibilities. Most women in our culture may have careers, may have higher ranks in the corporate world or earn more than their husbands, but they still do most of the household work when they get home. The usual setup is that husbands plant themselves in front of the television set or relax with a bottle or two of beer when they get home, while the women go straight to the kitchen to prepare dinner, supervise their kids’ homework, or even do the laundry. Their work is never done.

I personally grew up in this kind of setup. My mother was a schoolteacher who would double up as some kind of overall househelp when she would get home from a long day of teaching at a public school and doing community work. My dad wasn’t really a chauvinist, but he was the stereotypical Filipino male who shunned housework and seemed to think that managing the household was the sole domain of a woman. When we got sick, or when we had some problems, the standard line in the house was “talk to your mother.”

Of course we’re already seeing some changes in the setup as more men become more involved in family matters and household management. Still, this is far from being the norm in our society. In our culture, taking care of the home and nurturing children are still largely considered a woman’s job.

Whether we admit it or not, institutionalized discrimination against women still exists in our society. I am embarrassed to admit this but as a human resource management practitioner, I am aware that we still have a long way to go before we can honestly say that we take gender issues seriously in this country.

A quick scan of the job ads in most papers would easily reveal the extent to which we continue to sustain discriminatory practices, particularly towards women. For example, most job ads still specify physical requirements—usually couched as “pleasant personality”—for female applicants that are not required for males.

Thankfully, the workplace has become a little friendlier toward women. At least many companies now acknowledge the distinct social roles that women play in society particularly toward propagating the human race. Thus, it is heartwarming to note that most companies no longer discriminate against married women in the hiring process simply because they are liable to get pregnant and avail of certain benefits such as extended maternity leaves. In the past, many companies shunned hiring married female candidates in effect penalizing them for having wombs.

It can be argued of course that the main reason why married women are no longer discriminated against in the hiring process is simply because industry has found itself with very little choice. There is a dearth of qualified talents and the competition has forced many companies to accept the inevitable—hire married females and put in place programs that address their needs or suffer the business losses. Women have also been found to be more effective in certain jobs because of their inherent nurturing and caring traits.

Many companies have also started putting in place work-life and gender-friendly programs that recognize the distinct needs of women. For example, many companies now make available facilities for breastfeeding mothers to extract milk while at work. I am aware, though, that many of these breastfeeding mothers still have to put up with sexist comments and suffer being at the receiving end of jokes from their male counterparts. One friend confided that she had to stop breast feeding her newborn because she couldn’t anymore bear being the object of unwanted attention every single time she had to go to lock herself in a private room to, in the words of some crude male officemates, “play with herself.”

Domestic violence, though, is still something that the workplace has been unable to address so far. It is sad that many people still consider the subject a private matter between couples.
Women do perform extraordinary roles and make significant contributions in our society. Thus, the theme of this year’s celebration “Shaping Progress” was more than apt.

There’s a lot of discussion that needs to be conducted on the issues of women in this country. It’s is a sad reflection of the times we live in that most of these issues were deflected last Saturday when pro- and anti-Gloria Macapagal Arroyo women groups found themselves on the same venue last Saturday. I guess the human interest angle was just too difficult for media to ignore. Thus, most of the coverage about last Saturday’s celebration tended to focus on the potential drama than on the more substantive issues.

And was it just sheer coincidence that the people behind the Binibining Pilipinas franchise also chose the date in which to stage the annual pageant? Of all the dates in the calendar, did they really have to stage that pageant last Saturday? The pageant was a fitting reminder that their remains many institutionalized obstacles that stand in the way towards full recognition of the real contributions and potentials of women in our society.

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