Exclusive Interview with Prof. Diana Pearce - VIDEO

For Gender Kitabistan
article about 'Exclusive Interview with Prof. Diana Pearce - VIDEO' and 'For Gender Kitabistan'

In 2008, the UN launched the "UNITE to End Violence against Women" campaign. Every year, within the framework of this campaign, 16-day actions against gender-based violence continue to be held in different countries of the world. As Kitabistan, we join the campaign launched by the UN and we start the "Gender Kitabistan" project. Within this project, Kitabistan team will conduct interviews and research in order to raise awareness of gender-based violence and discrimination. The first guest of the "Gender Kitabistan" project is Diana Pierce, the founder and former director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington, who worked as a visiting scholar at Stanford University and American University.

Prof. Pearce is an academician who has devoted more than 30 years of her life to research on topics such as women's well-being, the impact of poverty and economic inequality on women's lives, and she also coined the phrase “the feminization of poverty”.

We introduce to our readers the exclusive interview with Prof. Diana Pierce.

- First of all, I would like to thank you for accepting our interview offer. You have devoted your life and career to topics such as women's well-being, the impact of poverty and economic inequality on women, and welfare reform, etc.

I would like to start by discussing the concept of feminization of poverty which you introduced. What is the feminization of poverty?

- Well, it's come to mean actually three things. Originally, it was the disproportionate number of women maintaining families among poor households. The second meaning, it was a trend that happened in the 1970s where women maintaining families went from about a quarter to about half of all poor households and it stayed pretty close to that ever since. So, that was a trend. The third meaning of the feminization of poverty is that it names an experience that women who have ended up becoming single parents or ended up alone supporting their households experience. The whole bundle of experiences. So, that's what the feminization of poverty has come to mean. Trend, demographic disproportion and the experience. Every time I've given a speech I've always had women come up and say you described my life, you described my experience.

- Based on your work, it is evident that there are three primary reasons for the feminization of poverty: demographic composition, economic conditions, and government policy. If we compare countries in the East and the West, which of these factors are more typical for Western and Eastern countries?

- First, I would like to, instead of economic conditions, I’d focus much more on the labor market. So, it's not just the economy such as whether it's in a depression or whatever. It's really the structure of the labor market in a way in which it discriminates against women. So, I would call that labour market rather than economic conditions. Because it isn't the general thing when there's a depression or recession everybody's affected by but the labor market is structured in such a way that affects it. Demographics - increase in single parents. One of the differences I think between the West and the East is that in America particularly, in Western countries generally, but particularly in the United States the demographics have really driven this and that is the increase in single-parent households which is an increase in both unmarried mothers - mothers becoming mothers without ever being married - and the increase in divorce. So, divorces kind of stabilized but the increase in the number of women who are having children but are not married to the father of the children continues to increase. In Eastern countries, you see much less of that. Poverty is more embedded in the structure of the way in which families are supported. So, the father may be present but he also may be absent for migratory work, they're still married, so she's not a single parent, but is de facto a single parent, or the way in which the culture is structured she is responsible for school fees or for feeding the family traditionally so that she has all those economic burdens of being a single parent but is not technically a single parent. So, the demographic part of it looks different. The labour market as well. Because in the United States, almost everybody participates in the commercial marketplace with paid jobs. Whereas in less developed countries a lot of people are either living on farms, self-sustaining or participating at best in the informal economy, the grey economy. So, it's a little bit different. You don't have the structure of the labor market with discrimination on the basis of gender having quite the same effects. And the third is the government policy. Welfare programs are much more robust in wealthier countries so that lower-income countries simply don't have the resources to support families affected by disasters, but even just ordinary economic transitions or just being a single parent with very young children. There's not the resources to provide income, child care, healthcare, those kinds of things on a universal basis in a robust way. So, those are the differences I would say.

- The current global crisis of hunger and malnutrition is on an enormous scale. According to the World Food Program, more than 345 million people face high levels of food insecurity in 2023, which is more than double the number recorded in 2020. 70% of the world's hungry live in war-torn areas, disproportionately affecting women and children. Despite the efforts of many international organizations, the problem still persists. What do you think are the most effective steps that governments and international organizations can take to solve this problem?

- If I had the perfect answer to that I could solve the problems of Gaza, Palestine and Israel (laughs). Obviously, women and children are the most vulnerable people in various kinds of war situations or famine situations and sometimes they go together like in Ethiopia. They are the most vulnerable, so they're going to be the most affected. One of the things that's happened over the last century is that the victims of war have become increasingly civilian. So, 100 years ago it was mostly soldiers that were killed and wounded in a war. Obviously, civilians were affected especially by food shortages, that sort of thing. But increasingly war has impacted the civilian population even more than the soldiers. For lots of reasons. Obviously, war is the primary issue here. The distribution of resources in a way that doesn't make people dependent upon those resources but helps them become independent. So, when you have famines not just providing immediate relief for people but working to make their livelihoods more sustainable. I think one of the larger issues that is happening now aside from war is the climate change that is resulting in famines and migration. That's creating a great deal of poverty and inequality. These people move desperate for resources, not able to support themselves on land because there's not enough water, or there's too much water, it is flooding. And so, many people go to cities and cities are overwhelmed. You get a lot of effects that way disproportionately affect women and children. The one positive I would say is that women who migrate can become economically I think more independent whether they voluntarily migrate or they are refugees. It's harder for men to make a shift to a new society with new rules, and it's easier for women to find work. Even just moving to a city often is empowering for women. Having moved from a very traditional society where they had much less.

- In many Asian and African countries, the demand for cheap labour is mostly fulfilled by women. Currently, one of the problems that women's rights defenders are trying to completely eliminate is the gender pay gap. However, based on the Gender Pay Gap Index 2023, the problem may persist until 2212. Are governments, civil societies, politicians, international organizations, and many other actors that are mobilized to solve the problem unable to address the fundamental issue of gender pay inequality? Is the situation truly hopeless? What should we do?

- (laughs) It's not hopeless but it's embedded in the process of development that is driven by capitalism. Just to take a concrete example. A Western comes in and builds a factory, hires as the frontline workers mostly women, they're replicating the gender inequality that is embedded in the West which is that women are recruited to jobs that are lower paid and those jobs are became labeled as “women's jobs” and they are not allowed to or recruited to jobs that are “men’s” jobs that pay better. So, the very thing that makes that industry, that development profitable is the exploitation of women and sometimes children in those jobs. So, part of it is the government is in a position of wanting to encourage investment and development, but at the same time, they're also encouraging the development of an occupational structure that is sex-segregated. A good proportion of the pay gap is not that women are paid less to do the same work as men, that is true to some extent, but the women are in jobs that pay less. And often those jobs are labeled as “women's jobs” and other jobs as “men's jobs” so that the higher paying jobs and the ones with more promotion and opportunity are assigned to men and this continues to replicate itself. I did a focus group many years ago and one of the participants in the focus group talked about how he had started a business of painting airplanes. You know, painting the numbers and the logos on airplanes. And women were the ones who did the masking, so you would make the shape that you wanted, put tapes on etc. And the men did spray painting. The men were paid more. (laughs) Same job. I mean basically, same. Neither one took more skill and less, obviously took some skill to do a good job, not to mess it up. But there was no reason for the women to be paid less than men. So, even in new job, - airplanes are new - creating new jobs… Electronic factories, the same thing happens. Certain jobs get assigned as women and paid less and certain jobs to men. And there's no rhyme or reason to it. So, the answer I think for that kind of occupational segregation is to try to prevent jobs from being labeled as men or women. It's also harder to organize women in terms of labour unions, labour power. So, if you have a mixture of men and women, you’re more likely to get paid more equally. Of course, you can take on the discrimination on the basis of “Well, you have children, you have to leave early, so we won't pay you as much” that kind of thing. So, dealing with that is another issue. And a third, I think is to provide support to women with children so that they can participate in the labour force in a more equal way. Providing good child care and health care, but particularly child care for very young children enables women to be able to go to work and all the children are taken care of. And that makes it possible for women to choose jobs. I know that in the former Soviet Union, there were certain jobs like teachers and others that ended early so that women could go home and do a second job, taking care of the house (laughs). You know, they were labeled as such, everything was assumed that these traditional gender roles would apply. So, not structuring jobs and labeling them is important.

- It is important to note that for any country, when a woman is poor, it often leads to a lack of civic participation and low literacy rates, which can result in vulnerable democracies, semi-paralysis of democratic institutions, and even future wars. Based on your experiences, can you explain how the issues of women's impoverishment, exploitation in the labor market, and income inequality affect democracy in societies?

- A lot of it has to do with who gets to participate in the decision-making and how they participate. If you're poor you may have less education, so less access to literacy. And even if literate you also need to be able to have access to the vote and be able to participate that way and also access to organization, to organize, be a part of movements for the kinds of changes that are important to women. Electing women is important. But they need to be elected as women who are interested in women's issues not because they are somebody's wife or widow or who's just going to do the bidding at the men in the community, but women who on their own raise the issues that are important to women. But poverty has with it many aspects. Shame and exclusion from the various institutions of society, exclusion by the fact that transportation is difficult. So, you end up being in a poverty ghetto or you are locked in the home because you just have no resources or ability to be outside of the home to participate in the public sphere. Some of this is tradition. In Islamic tradition, my understanding is that, often public spheres are considered male and private spheres female. And those traditions need to be overcome for women to be able to participate equally in the public sphere and public discourse.

- Based on Kitabistan's concept, one of our main activities at Kitabistan is promoting gender equality and empowering women. This time, I would like to ask you a traditional Kitabistan question in a slightly different way: which book on gender equality and women's empowerment would you recommend to our readers?

- I would recommend Mimi Abramovitz’s book “Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present”. She talks about social welfare policy and how it is gendered and how it focuses on women differently than on men in terms of both supporting them and regulating them.

- Thank you so much. Thank you for your answers. It was a very insightful interview.

- You are welcome.

Malak Hajiyeva