The Dangers of Being Female

This month was big on bad news for women. First, a family in Canada was convicted for killing four female relatives, then a woman was allegedly strangled by her husband in Afghanistan, and then a high-profile charity in the United States decides to withdraw funds to screen women for breast cancer.

There are two things that struck me as noticeable about these events and their news coverage.

The first is that in all of these cases, different as they may be, women are being punished for being women. The Canada killings were allegedly motivated by the girls' dating and wearing girly clothes. The woman in Afghanistan was supposedly killed because she had given birth to three girls in a row. And it is hard to think of a gesture that more clearly targets women for just being women, in my opinion, than defunding screenings for breast cancer.

The second thing that is noticeable about coverage of these recent events is that many people have expressed their outrage over them, making me feel tentatively optimistic about the future for women's rights. With that in mind, I am hoping that more people will start caring -- and expressing outrage -- about these three very common ways in which women are being punished for being female.

Limited workplace support for pregnancy. Dina Bakst's recent piece in the New York Times put it succinctly: "few people realize that getting pregnant can mean losing your job." Several reports and books describe the devastating effects of limited or weak support for pregnancy on women's careers, health and finances. Contrary to what some might suggest, providing support for pregnant women and new mothers through flex-time, job-protection and paid parental leave is not just good for women: it is good for their families, their employers and ultimately society as a whole. Leaving that aside for a minute, though, regardless of the overall beneficial effects of better work-life policies, women should not be punished for the biological fact that they can get pregnant and men cannot.

Assumptions about female weakness. Despite the fact that many women are the sole or main providers for their families, and despite women's advances as middle managers, women continue to be underrepresented in top leadership roles: in 2010, only 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies were led by women. Research repeatedly points to assumptions about women's "nature" as key barriers to promotion: women aren't thought to be as assertive as men, and are seen to lack vision and strength. It is telling that many job adverts suggest that "qualified women" are encouraged to apply. Men, this seems to imply, are qualified just by being male.

Punitive laws related to women's sexuality. Societies have viewed and regulated women's sexuality differently than men's for as long back as we can dig up evidence about. The ancient Greek city-states, for example, expected Greek women to be chaste and demure, and punished or ridiculed those who were not. Today, laws to punish women for having sex with the wrong persons at the wrong time for the wrong reasons persist in almost all countries in the world, ranging from the criminalization of female adultery and of abortion over laws that punish drug use during pregnancy to social services provisions that punish poor unmarried women with more than one child. At the basis of all of these laws is one main thought: Women should not really want to have sex.

All of these three issues are intimately related to the anti-women news items of this month. As long as women are undervalued, expected to bear the entire price of reproduction, and at the same time required to be outwardly asexual, we will see more women and girls killed, maimed and their health needs discarded. Hopefully, we can continue to muster outrage and actually generate change.