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Equality: Where are you?


By Emmanuelle Schopp

“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). These words constitute the motto of the French Republic. This notion of equality can also be found in the first words of the American Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, etc.” The fact that the concept of equality appears in so many constitutional texts, laws, or mottos illustrates its importance and people’s desire to have equality or, at least, tend towards it. But equality is not only a pure and idealized notion that belongs to paper documents. Above all, equality manifests itself in everyday life: it is a word so often uttered, quoted, claimed, talked about, or debated in our society nowadays. People call and fight for it. Some people also try to protect their own privileges by discriminating others and limiting their access to equality. Why is it so? And what is exactly equality? Why it is so hard to reach it? In which areas do we witness a lack of equality or rather inequality?

If we look at the definition of equality in a dictionary, here is what one can find: “Equality is the quality or state of being equal: the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc.”1 Literally speaking, this seems very clear and quite simple. But in practice, we realize that it can be very difficult to reach equality because there are so many factors and mechanisms that need to be taken into account in order to actually have equality. Human beings are one of them. Some people tend to oppose equality (even though they do not openly admit it) and it is all their efforts to undermine equality or prevent other individuals from being their equals that can explain why equality between human beings is rarely a reality.

For me, equality involves the notions of equal rights and equal opportunities. If we want to guarantee equality, we should make sure that we treat everyone the same and are able to grant them the same rights and opportunities, no matter who they are, how they look like, or where they come from. Unfortunately, daily examples demonstrate that equality is more of a utopia than a reality. Every day, equality is put into question and people are discriminated against because of their race, gender, religion, or socio-economic background. Here are some examples of prejudices and thoughts on equality that I would like to share with you:

Not long ago, I came across one such instance of discrimination in an article about the famous American singer Bruce Springsteen (whom I like very much!). Springsteen recently cancelled a concert in Greensboro, North Carolina, to protest the “bathroom” law that had been passed by North Carolina legislators on March 23rd. This new law, called the North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, “will force public colleges and universities (as well as other public venues and government buildings) to require their restrooms be used only by people whose biological sex at birth matches the sign on the door.”2 Targeting transgender people and forcing them to use facilities that do not reflect their identities, this law goes even further since it “prohibits municipalities from creating their own antidiscrimination policies by creating a statewide antidiscrimination policy — one that does not mention gay and transgender people.”3 Qualifying this North Carolina law as an “attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress,”4 Springsteen decided that cancelling his concert was the best way he had to oppose it and show his support for those denouncing the law and fighting for equality.

But Springsteen is not the only “famous” person to react to this discriminatory measure and take action against it. On April 11th, Adam Silver, an American lawyer and the commissioner of the NBA, declared that he had informed the governor of North Carolina, Pat McRory, of the NBA’s opposition to the North Carolina “bathroom law”. He further announced that they gave 30 days to the state of North Carolina to repeal the law or the All Star Games 2017 (which is supposed to take place in North Carolina) will be hosted in another state.5 This other reaction, coming from such a big institution as the NBA, shows that more and more people are opposing and denouncing this law for its discriminatory character towards a minority group, LGBT people.

This law sadly reminded me of the separate bathrooms for blacks and whites that existed in the South of the United States during the Jim Crow era. Racial segregation was made constitutional in 1896 with the United States Supreme Court decision, Plessy Vs Ferguson, which made legal separated facilities for blacks and whites as long as they were equal. Therefore, public facilities, places, and services were allowed to be segregated along racial lines, as long as the quality of each group’s public facilities was equal.6 But we know that these facilities were very far from equal: whites always had better facilities than blacks simply because some thought that race should determine who should have more privileges than others and benefit from better facilities. This question of equality and equal opportunities was at the very heart of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s: African-Americans fought to be treated as equal human beings and to have the same opportunities as white people.

I do realize that drawing a parallel between the North Carolina bathroom law and the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Jim Crow era may seem to be a far-reaching idea but the main point that made me compare these two cases is the will of a state to create a law that assert who should use which bathroom by segregating and limiting the rights of a certain group of people. It is also a way to show that minorities (whether in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, or class) have always suffered from discrimination and that equality and the notions of equal rights and opportunities have encountered many opponents in the course of time and are not easily given to everyone.

Another “minority” that still suffers much discrimination today are women. It is even weird to call women a minority, considering that they represent almost half of the world population (the percentage of men in the world being slightly higher than the percentage of women), but the term minority here should not be considered in terms of number but rather in terms of rights, opportunities, and place in society. Indeed, one does not need to be an expert in gender equality to acknowledge the fact that there is a huge gender gap in many different fields throughout the world, and that women still continue to be called the “inferior sex” and face much discrimination simply because they are women.

One of the areas where women are far from equal to men is work. One aspect that perfectly illustrates this is the gender pay gap, which is the difference between what men and women earn at work. For instance, in the United States in 2013, women earned 78% of what men earned.7 In the same year, in France, women earned in average 1943 Euros per month while men earned 2399 Euros (for a full-time job), showing a 19% gap between them (2.5 points less than 10 years ago). Moreover, if we compare the wages of men and women having similar positions and working conditions, numbers reveal that the pay gap between men and women in France in 2013 was of 9.9%.8 Even though some progress has been made over the years and the gender pay gap has decreased, I think that it is still unacceptable to pay women less than men simply because they are women.

We can also find such a gender gap in terms of high position jobs, where men largely occupy the high-ranking positions with more responsibilities while women are relegated to lower positions. A recent study carried out by the “Organisation Internationale du Travail” (OIT) in January 2015 indicates that only 5% of the world’s biggest companies’ CEOs are women, reflecting once again the great gender segregation in the workplace.9 One particular field where women do not have the same access as men (which is something that particularly shocks and angers me!) is politics. Indeed, politicians are supposed to represent the voices and rights of the peoples, but how can it be so when so many politicians are men whereas women constitute almost half of the world population?

We can find many examples that perfectly sustain this idea. For instance, another research project carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the basis of information provided by National Parliaments by 1st February 2016 reveals that the number of women in national parliaments throughout the world is always lower that the men’s, except in two countries: Rwanda and Bolivia. France is pitifully ranked 59 out of 191 countries with a percentage of women in the Lower House of 26.2% and of 25% in the Upper House. The situation is even worse for the United States which is ranked 95 out of 191 countries with 19.4% and 20%, respectively.10

Let us continue in this direction and have a look at the composition of the French government. One of the campaign’s promises of the French President François Hollande was to guarantee parity in the government. In general, he has kept his words and the number of ministers and secretaries of state has always more or less been half women and half men. However, one important point that needs to be underlined here is the absence of women at the head of the five main ministries (also called regalian ministries), which are the Ministry of  Foreign Affairs, The Department of Homeland Security, The Department of  Defence, The Treasury Department, and the Ministry of Justice. This observation clearly sheds light on a constant tendency in our societies: people may agree to grant women some power, but not too much!

I do think that women’s lack of representation in politics clearly demonstrates society’s tendency of considering women as not worth governing or having leading positions and simply of seeing them as inferior human beings. This attitude needs to change. Women have a lot to offer and I think the world would be a better place if women had more power because they would work towards gender equality and towards equality in general.

Finally, when talking about equal rights and opportunities, I think it is important to do so in terms of class or socio-economic background. And one thing related to this point which particularly shocked me when I arrived here in the US is the cost of education and the expensive health care system.

Since I am here through a specific program, I am lucky enough to be able to audit two classes per semester for free and benefit from a free health insurance, but I cannot help thinking about how expensive college education is in the US and how unequal it is. Indeed, I do not see equality or equal opportunities here since only those who have money can go to college (or students have to work outside of class to pay for their tuition fees and most likely start their professional life with a lot of debt). This is a system that I am definitely not used to, and that I will never really understand because I do think that education should be free or, when not completely free, should cost as less as possible in order to allow a maximum of people (no matter their socio-economic backgrounds) to attend college and have the same opportunities as those who can afford it. Otherwise, it is a vicious circle: if you come from a poor family, you will not be able to afford university tuition fees and without a college education, you will more likely be relegated to low-paid jobs. Considering that, I have to say that I am very lucky to have studied in France because of the great help received from the government to give me an education. In France, University costs very little, and I would even say almost nothing compared to what it is in the United States. For instance, at my University, it costs about 190 Euros per year for a Bachelor’s Degree (you have to add about 215 Euros for the Student Social Security) and 260 Euros per year for a Master’s Degree (adding also 215 Euros for the Student Social Security). However, if you are a scholarship student, you only have to pay 5 Euros per year (the fees and Social Security are free), and depending on where you are on the scholarships scale, you can also receive money from the government to help you pay for accommodation and food. I like the French educational system because it is strongly supported by the government and therefore results in few costs for students.

Moreover, as I was mentioning before, I do believe that the expensive health care system in the United States really is a problem in terms of equal opportunities since the high costs do not allow everyone to benefit from the system. Even though I have two free health insurances here (one with the Fulbright program and one with Willamette), I was nonetheless strongly advised to subscribe to another health insurance in France that would cover me in the US in order to be sure to be well covered here. Therefore, I paid for an extra-insurance to be on the safe side. But despite all that, since I arrived at Willamette in August, I have been scared of getting injured and having to go to the hospital and pay thousands of dollars in case my insurances did not cover the type of accident or injury that I may have. I know that this sort of apprehension is nothing compared to people who cannot afford a health insurance and are therefore not covered at all, but it does help me be aware of the high costs of health care here and of the fact that a lot of people do not benefit from equal opportunities in terms of health care. Although I must acknowledge the fact that Obamacare has allowed to make some progress in this field, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to use the word equality concerning health care in the US.

As a conclusion, I would like to say that if I decided to talk about so many different topics is it to underline the idea that equality is far from being a reality in many different fields and that discrimination towards minority groups for their race, ethnicity, gender, sex, or class still continues to pervade and pervert our society. People will always want to keep their privileges and limit other people’s access to equality. But this does not mean that we have to watch in silence and accept the unequal status of our world. Equality is a noble idea so do not let it just be a utopia, but fight for it to make it real, visible, and empowering!

1Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

2 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/03/28/north-carolina-bathroom-law-could-change-practices-public-colleges-and-universities

3 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/us/north-carolina-to-limit-bathroom-use-by-birth-gender.html?_r=0

4 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/04/08/bruce-springsteen-cancels-n-c-show-to-protest-bathroom-law/

5 http://www.basketusa.com/news/355097/loi-anti-lgbt-adam-silver-menace-charlotte-de-lui-enlever-le-all-star-game-2017/

6 Mary Beth Norton, et al., A People and A Nation: A History of the United States, Brief Eighth Edition, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010, p.530-531.

7 https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/04/14/five-facts-about-gender-pay-gap

8 http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2015/09/22/salaires-les-ecarts-hommes-femmes-se-reduisent-sauf-pour-les-hauts-revenus_4767045_4355770.html

9 http://www.terrafemina.com/emploi-a-carrieres/actu/articles/52651-pdg-chefs-dentreprise-ou-sont-les-femmes-.html

10 http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

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