Saturday, May 26, 2012

Plenty of time to ponder a better life


 I arrived at a state-run health centre last Tuesday in good time for my appointment made exactly a month earlier. The receptionist told me I was third in line to see the doctor, a young woman. More people were waiting in the same area to see another doctor, a middle-aged man.
That morning, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development had issued its latest Better Life Index. It reported that 61% of Portuguese women aged between 15 and 64 are in paid work, compared with 70% of men.
Here it seemed like more than 90% of the observable staff were women, despite the OECD’s assertion that “glaring gender differences” mean Portuguese women spend more than five hours a day on domestic chores, while men spend only about 90 minutes cooking, cleaning or caring for children.
In the developed world, Portugal has one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor. It is the most unequal country in Europe, according to the OECD. The top 20% of the population earn six times as much as the bottom 20%. I felt sure no one in the top 20% would be seen dead in this national health centre.
The male doctor was clearing his line of patients fairly quickly. The woman doctor was taking much longer but, eventually, she got around to calling in her next client, a young mother with a baby. It occurred to me that in keeping with the OECD average, this Portuguese baby had a life expectancy of almost 80 years – 77 if it was a boy, 83 if it was a girl.
Meanwhile, the elderly patient in front of me was becoming increasingly depressed at having to spend so much of his dwindling lifespan waiting in a corridor. It must have seemed like eternity.
Suddenly a young schoolgirl appeared and marched confidently up to a desk staffed by two talkative women who seemed to have the joint responsibility of answering a phone that seldom rang. The girl was probably a grandchild of one of the operators.
As the three of them chatted, the phone rang but the women simply ignored it and carried on nattering. The demeanour of the operators suggested they were not among the 30% of Portuguese adults aged between 25 and 64 who have successfully completed a high-school education. This, incidentally, is the lowest rate among OECD countries. The average is 74%.
Later, when the little girl said goodbye and skipped off home, I guessed she would score well in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. In reading literacy, maths and science tests, Portuguese girls outperform boys by 10 points, slightly more than the average OECD gender gap of 9 points.
Finally and at long last I was summoned to the consulting room. The lady in white smiled, shook hands firmly and asked brightly: “How are you?”
I passed her an envelope containing blood test results, hoping she would answer the question for me.
No wonder she was smiling. Male domination is on the wane. Across the 34 OECD countries, women have more job satisfaction and are happier than men.
As the doctor tapped clinical statistics into her computer, I still had time to reflect on the Better Life Index. Would I emerge from the health centre among the 72% in Portugal who say that, on an average day, they have more positive than negative experiences? 

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