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Gender & The Budget

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

[Note: A version of this was published in the Sunday Edition of the Casper Star Tribune on 12/20/20 as a column by Jen Simon. Subscribe to your local paper!]

Our language is full of casual references that reinforce the hierarchy of humans that puts men and boys above the rest of us. “Guys” is our catchall word for any group of people. Chairman is still the official title for committee leaders in our state legislature. Better to be a “tomboy” than to “throw like a girl.”

When we use these terms reflexively—without giving them a second thought—it reinforces that collectively we still value men more than women.

You can see it in sports. The most visible example might be the US Women’s National Soccer Team. They play more games, win more games, and have more championships than their male counterparts. Oh, and this important point: they also sell more. More tickets and more merchandise, making them a more profitable entity than the US Men’s National Soccer Team. Yet they earn considerably less, have smaller bonuses, and train in inferior conditions.

You can see it in movies and tv shows across the culture. There are more offerings that don’t pass what’s known as the “Bechdel Test” than things that do. And the bar of the Bechdel Test is pretty darned low: Are there two women? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

We routinely—and often inadvertently—privilege what boys do: in language, in sports, in culture. Which stands as a reminder that, despite generations of work for equality, the patriarchy puts its stamp on even the most mundane things that we do. But it’s not just the day-to-day things: it happens in all facets of government, too. Where the stakes are higher.

Even in our calls for smaller government, we deem the police and military to be the “good” functions of government; we talk about them as “protectors”—a word that is coded masculine. Meanwhile, whenever we raise the possibility of state-supported affordable health care, it is derided as “the nanny state.” It isn’t a coincidence that the thing we denigrate is stamped with a feminine term.

That’s played out over the last two weeks as Joint Appropriations worked the supplemental budget.

The Joint Appropriations Committee has 12 men and 0 women right now, a clear indicator of who leadership thinks should be making decisions about the state's money. (The newly reconstituted Appropriations Committee for the Wyoming 66th will adjust that ratio to 11 men and 1 woman. Meanwhile, the 66th’s Labor, Health & Social Services Committee will have 7 men and 7 women—proving parity is possible.)

All policy reflects the people we elect; it happens in the budgeting process, too. While there is a lot at stake for everyone and no department was spared in the latest round of budget cuts, discussions about where to cut—and sometimes where to restore—still reflected gendered assumptions.

For example, there were no amendments offered or testimony given about a proposed reduction of $2,664,702 in the Behavioral Health Division of the Department of Health which would eliminate access to 40 beds currently available to individuals requiring mental health residential services. This at a time of increased mental health needs and rising suicide rates across the country.

Mental health gets gendered as feminine—mostly because any perceived weakness is still considered feminine and, for no good reason, seeking mental health services is often perceived as weak.

In contrast, JAC heard nearly two hours of testimony to restore a similar amount of funding to the Cowboy Youth Challenge, a program that falls under the military department. The testimony came entirely from men in spite of the fact that the majority of their faculty are women. Much testimony focused on the military roots of the program. (Strangely, not as much on the economic impact of the 51 jobs that would disappear from Guernsey.)

Early childhood education—often considered to be the responsibility of women through unpaid labor—was also on the chopping block. One committee member not only approved of cuts to early childhood education and developmental screenings but also went on to say, “We already spend too much money in this area.” The same member later moved to provide University of Wyoming Athletics (sports: masculine!) with an additional $1,000,000.

A budget is a moral document. It shows what we value, where we’re willing to put our resources, what we’re willing to sacrifice for. It also shows who we’re okay leaving behind. It is high time we curbed our gender bias in policy and budgeting. Everyone in our state will benefit when we do.

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