WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

What Does It Mean To Be a Female Athlete?

Caster Semenya and other female runners compete at a track meet.We don’t live in an “either/or” world. Most non-sport institutions get this. It’s why Starbucks has unisex bathrooms, why there are forms to change your gender on government documents, why there is even a concept of “preferred pronouns.”

But athletics remains stubbornly committed to a male-female dichotomy. Enforcement of that rigid divide is again causing a stir. Last month, the International Association of Athletics Federations (the I.A.A.F.) issued new rules for track athletes that will take effect in November requiring some female athletes – those with naturally elevated testosterone – to take medication to suppress those hormones.

The requirement applies to females the IAAF describes as “athletes with differences in sexual development” (they call it “DSD”) and only to middle-distance running events between 400 meters and the mile. Athletes would have to take the medication for six months prior to the Olympic and international events the rules govern.

The IAAF said the rules hope to ensure “fair and meaningful competition within the female classification.” Higher levels of testosterone provide an advantage in speed, power, and endurance, said the IAAF, giving an unfair advantage to these hyperandrogenic athletes.

Reasonable, right? After all, transgender female athletes competing in women’s events must undergo hormone therapy to lower testosterone levels.

Yet it’s one thing to decide to transition and another to be forced to change. Perhaps the problem is the guardianship of “the female classification”? It’s true that a 2017 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (commissioned by the IAAF), found that athletes with “elevated testosterone levels gained a competitive advantage from 1.78 percent to 4.53 percent,” in the hammer throw, the pole vault, the 400 meter, the 400 meter hurdles and the 800 meter.

The new rule, however, applies to running events, not the hammer throw or pole vault.

The rule also has a personal – even cultural or racial – sheen. That’s because there is no way to consider this rule without looking at the consequences for South African middle-distance runner and two-time 800-meter Olympic champion Caster Semenya, criticized for her muscular physique and deep voice. Since she burst onto the scene in 2009 as an 18-year-old who broke a South African record at the African Junior National Championships, and then won the world title in Berlin, there have been questions about the “unfairness” of her natural physical gifts. (In Berlin, she was reportedly subjected to sex testing).

Semenya has also undergone public sex-questioning, including news reports citing unnamed sources describing her sex organs. “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I am proud of myself,” she tweeted on May 1.

Image shows the text of a quote pulled from this article in white text on an orange background. The quote reads, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand also has suffered public questions and humiliation. In 2014 at the Glasgow Games, she was pulled aside and not allowed to compete. Offered medical “treatment,” she refused. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration, which in 2015 ruled that Chand could compete. The court suspended the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism rules, citing “insufficient evidence about the degree of the advantage” the condition provided.

This is presumably why the IAAF rules now dig into ranges of performance advantage in terms of muscle strength and hemoglobin associated with elevated testosterone levels. While Chand is not affected by the new rules as a sprinter, Semenya certainly is. Two weeks ago, South African law professor Steve Cornelius resigned from the IAAF’s tribunal, stating that he could not associate with “an organization that insists on ostracizing certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be.”

His point: Who defines “female”? How “female” must one be to be “female”? Men in the sport world do not face scrutiny of their physical gifts or surveillance of their hormone levels. At what point is this about biological conformity and social norms? At what point is enforcing a dichotomy – male/female – a failed approach?

Last month, a study in Journal of Sports Sciences analyzed Semenya’s actual times, finding they “were 1.24 percent and 1.49 percent faster than the predicted performance in 800m finals.” That relatively small percentage confuses the male-female divisions even more.

Wrote the authors: “The present study indicates that the percentage difference in performance between women with and women without hyperandrogenism does not reach the 3 percent difference requested by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for the reinstatement of the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, neither does it reach the 10 percent accepted range of difference in performance between men and women.”

Is hyperandrogenism an advantage? Yes. Is it more of an advantage than other naturally-occurring physical gifts athletes enjoy? Unclear. Is it “fair” that Michael Phelps has size 14 feet, double-jointed ankles, and a prodigious wingspan? That Usain Bolt is 6’5”?

If testosterone is the game-changer, then eschew “male” and “female” and re-classify athletes based on testosterone levels – like weight classes in wrestling. Or create some other structure. Otherwise what we are doing here – without naming it – is demanding biological conformity to a Western view of what it means to be a woman.

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women and was a leader of the Women’s Sports Leadership Project. She is an award-winning journalist, co-author of Playing with the Boys (2008), and for seven years, she edited the FairGameNews blog, now an archive.

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My Visit to MarketPlace: Handwork of India

marketplaceindia groupI have been a fan of MarketPlace: Handwork of India for decades, not simply because it is a Fair Trade organization but also because I love their clothing. I am the happy owner of many of their shirts (long and short sleeved), dresses (winter and summer), jackets, and wraps. Some of my clothes are bordering on 30 years old, faded and sadly, no longer available -- not even on the clearance site.

Generally, I make my purchases from the catalog, not from their website. I would wait until the catalog arrived to make my choices and over time, I began to notice that the catalog held more than just items to purchase. Indeed, it had stories and photographs of the women -- their lives at work, at their homes, their children, their recipes, their excursions, their wishes, their struggles, and accomplishments. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. This was not your usual catalog.

Since my Wellesley colleague Emmy Howe and I were traveling to Delhi for the Sex/Ed Conference in November 2017, we decided to schedule some visits in the Mumbai area. Among those we wanted to visit was the office of MarketPlace, located in the suburbs of Mumbai. After some negotiations with the CEO Pushpika Freitas and with input from the local director/supervisor, Linda Machado, we arranged to visit their office in the Santacruz East area of Mumbai.

IndiaMarketplaceWith our cell phones actively participating in locating the office, along with the skills of our car service driver, we arrived after lunch on November 14, 2017. About 12 women artisans were gathered together along with some staff -- they greeted us with a special handmade mandala on the floor, and after a candle lighting ceremony, they sang us a song that they had written.

Our conversation got off to a lively start as we shared with them a song, albeit on YouTube, “Bread and Roses” sung by Joan Baez, and told them about the history and lives of women workers in the garment industry in the U.S.

With translation provided by some of the social workers from the NGO part of MarketPlace, called SHARE, which is responsible for the social development and empowerment of the women, along with our host Linda Machado and with some of the artisans who spoke English, we discussed the MarketPlace clothing that I wore and how I had spread the word among my colleagues. In addition, and more substantively, we discussed some of the unique features that MarketPlace offered them -- help with the education of their children, literacy programs, health improvements, the kids programs (148 kids between ages 4-25 years old); and how some of them had been promoted from within from artisan to supervisor. As they were promoted within the organization, they were provided with additional training in accounting and bookkeeping. Throughout our time together, we detected their obvious pride in their work and in their organization. One of the women said, “If not given this opportunity, we’d be washing dishes or doing housework in someone else’s house.”

marketplace0group3

Another special experience awaited us after some of the women artisans left with their bags of garments, which needed their embroidery; we climbed the stairs to the workshop. There we met additional artisans who worked on sewing machines, creating some of the prototypes for new clothing. Best of all, we watched a weekly discussion group -- an article of interest from the newspaper was selected and a group of women, ranging in age from 20-70 years old, sat in a circle expressing their opinions. This week’s topic was on dowry, which provided for a heated conversation. Even though we could not follow the conversation in Hindi, we noticed the animation that it produced. I asked Linda privately if all of the women were literate and she told me that some were not but the articles were read aloud so all participants were able to be involved.

The visit with the artisans in Santacruz East was so meaningful and vivid, and I know that I speak for both Emmy and myself when I say that we treasured our time there and the photos that we have of it. I will buy their clothing with new meaning attached to each and every item. And a big thank you.

Nan Stein, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She has conducted research on sexual harassment/gender violence in K-12 schools and teen dating violence for more than 30 years and co-led the Shifting Boundaries, school-based dating violence prevention program.

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What Happens to Gender Pay Gap Among College Educated?

sariblogWe all have heard it, women earn about 20 percent less than men. But when, how, and why does the gap emerge? Everyone has an opinion on it, and these opinions range widely – which leads to many frustrating public opinion exchanges. Are we eternally stuck in a rut arguing about what the relevant facts are? Or could administrative “big data” shed some new light here and help move us forward? We think so…

Two new studies find that college grads start their career with a tiny gender earnings gap, but end up with a substantial gap by age 45. What are women doing wrong, or men doing right, for this to happen? This seems to be a story about “career acrobatics”, one with chutes and ladders. First, it turns out that the gap widens both in existing jobs as men climb the career ladders faster and higher within firms, and through job changes since men disproportionately move across firms to higher paying ones as they age. By the time college grads reach their peak earnings, men earn on average 55 percent more than women.

What could possibly account for such enormous earnings gaps during the first 20 years of working life? Not surprisingly for anyone, a chunk of the initial gap and its subsequent growth comes from differences between men and women in terms of the sectors and occupations in which they work. Women are definitely over-represented in lower paying sectors and occupations. The best-known examples include teachers, nurses, occupational therapists, and social workers. Many commentators argue that women themselves are responsible for pay gaps as they choose careers where starting salary is low and salary growth modest with work experience and seniority. In reality, the reasons why women congregate in these occupations are complex, and addressing occupational gender differences requires societal changes. More importantly for the debate though, women are not “causing” the earnings gap with their “bad choices” – occupational segregation accounts for no more than a third of the overall earning gap. Something else is at work.

blog sari paygap2017Another expensive “choice” women make is motherhood. Women are more likely to move into part-time positions, take time off after having children and work fewer hours than men – even in full-time work. How much of that 55 percent gap does motherhood explain? Unfortunately our data does not give a direct answer to that, but arguably all of these factors contribute to the growing earnings gap between ages 25 and 45. What we can say though is that much of the widening of the earnings gap comes from married women: their earnings grow much more slowly with age and they see little benefit from job hopping compared with men and unmarried women. Why are they not able to capitalize on their college degree like others even by switching jobs? This may be related to a phenomenon called “tied migration.” Family makes their location decision based on the “primary career”, which usually is that of the husband. This is why job moves tend to only benefit that primary career and could even hurt the secondary career. Ironically, the primary career is typically chosen to be the one with greater earnings potential – bringing us right back to the gender pay gap conundrum. This begins to look like a self-reinforcing cycle.

Career choices that look “less than optimal” in terms of long-run earnings growth may also be explained by college educated women consciously moving to lower-paying firms (within a given industry) in anticipation of needing more time flexibility when children enter the picture. Similarly, the gender earnings gap is largest in sectors, such as financial, insurance, and real estate (FIRE), that are more unforgiving of career interruptions and shorter or more flexible work hours. At age 25-27, female college grads working in FIRE earn almost exactly as much as male college grads. However, already by age 30-32 men earn about 35 percent more. In this sector men are able to obtain greater career advancements within a given firm, but a sizeable chunk of the earnings gap is due to women’s disproportionate shift into lower-paying firms by age 34.

We promised that these data could help shed some new light, but there are still many questions in making sense of the patterns. For one, what happens to the career and earnings dynamics within households as the family composition changes? Time-use studies say that the arrival of children makes spouses specialize more: one parent focuses on work while the other takes more responsibility at home, often balancing a job in the mix. It is easy to guess how this specialization usually goes, but might the dynamics look different if it was the father rather than the mother who takes a career break? Answers to those questions can clarify policy recommendations. For example, would a Swedish-style shared parental leave policy reduce gender earnings gaps or do we need a more wholesale approach to workplace organization? The latter approach would include reducing the earnings and career cost of temporal flexibility, making a work-family balance easier for both moms and dads, and reduce the need to designate a “default parent” who takes over the majority of household and child-related responsibilities.

Sari Pekkala Kerr, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist/economist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her work described above is based on the research she conducted with Erling Barth, Claudia Goldin, and Claudia Olivetti.

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#MeToo is a step forward, but it's time for bystanders and perpetrators to stand up

metooI applaud the strength and solidarity of the women (and men, too) who are asserting with the hashtag #MeToo, that they are among the estimated one in five women who have been sexually assaulted and one in four working women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted each year in the U.S. Enough IS enough. What I now want to know is how many men will stand up against it. Maybe things are changing… It did not take long before we saw that men were writing #IHave and now as I suggest #IWill which can reflect steps they are taking and will take to end the role they have had in promoting gender-based violence and sexual assault, to assert that they will NOT stand by while sexual harassment and assault happen, that they will call it out when they see it.

Classic rape is recognized as a crime --- when a male stranger attacks a woman at night, kidnaps her, or breaks into her home, and then forces her at gunpoint to submit to sexual acts it is (usually) seen as rape. But this does NOT describe most rape, nor are most perpetrators of sexual assault strangers. Those of us working in this field have recognized for years that most rape occurs at the hands of someone the victim knows. While some of what draws our attention today is workplace sexual harassment not involving sexual contact, clearly in the context of the Harvey Weinstein allegations we are hearing about actual sexual contact, forced sexual contact, contact against the will of the victim. The lawyers can tell you what statute covers this behavior in your particular state, but when it occurs without the consent of the woman or child or when she is unable to consent, this is a crime. A serious crime that can result in jail time, a crime which should result in the attention of the criminal justice system-- though nine times out of ten it does not.

We have known for decades that most rape is perpetrated by men known to the victim; study after study have found that many hundreds of thousands of women and girls (as well as many men and boys) are sexually assaulted each year. So why are we still surprised to hear about it today? (Yes, we are doing better responding to sexual assault and, yes, it is gratifying to see the support that the women who have come forward to report what has happened to them in Hollywood are now—mostly—receiving. But year after year after year this is still with us.)

Again and again we see a backlash against the victims. Perhaps our system of justice will prosecute those who rape very small children or 97-year-olds, or those who assault women who are the valued mothers and daughters of powerful white men, but most sexual assault is not reported and, even when reported, does not lead to an arrest or prosecution.

blogquote linda metooWe must remember it is not only Hollywood producers who sexually assault and not only young actors who are the victims. The rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault include:

  • the boss of a 17-year-old working in a fast food restaurant who needs her job so she can go to college, or
  • the supervisor of a 30-year-old mother who is a dishwasher, waitress, cashier, salesperson and needs her low wage part-time job to feed her family,
  • the manager who knows his employee can’t quit or take the chance of being fired so she won’t report or can’t find the time to go to the police or to court to press her case,
  • the manager, the frat-boy or the professor who knows the victim won’t risk the shame and humiliation of reporting and this won’t make it dangerous for him to continue assaulting her or others,
  • The senior colleague of an assistant professor who will decide her fate on the promotion and tenure committee,
  • The fellow student, the upperclassman or the star football player who knows his attention will flatter the first-year student or the jock who knows after she has had a lot to drink that he has a good chance of getting away with a sexual assault-- he knows that when she passes out in the dorm room, or by a dumpster in the parking lot, or no matter what happens to her, she will be too afraid to scream out or report what this star athlete has done,
  • Or a bus driver or taxi driver, priest, teacher, uncle, military superior, or neighbor who assaults the mother of his child’s best friend,
  • Finally there is the ex-boyfriend or partner who thinks that he is entitled to sex because she consented in the past, because he knows her secrets and can prey on her fears, insecurities, or her shame.

This is the reality of rape—a crime most likely perpetrated by a man known to the victim – an acquaintance, “friend,” classmate, employer, or partner. Such rape is more common than stranger rape. In spite of extensive data showing that rape is underreported, rarely falsely reported, and even after many Harvey Weinsteins--too many to count-- many still hold inaccurate beliefs about the nature of rape, when and to whom it happens, and its impact on the victim—the women who are young and old; Black, white and brown; rich and poor.

Yes, it is notable that women can now join in and feel supported enough to tweet #MeToo and in so doing make it clear that rape is not rare, that rape can happen to anyone. But now, it is also time to ask the bystanders and the actual or wanna-be perpetrators to stand up and say #IHave to indicate “I sexually assaulted someone,” “I stood by while my friends or classmates or colleagues did it,” or “I know men who bragged about it.” And use the hashtag #IWill to assert they will no longer stand by and do nothing but instead that they will stand up and support victims and survivors. #IWill stand up and call out these behaviors even when powerful men state “I just start kissing them. I don't even wait...when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is senior research scientist and director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.


Need help or assistance? In the U.S., call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.4673.

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