Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Different Kind of Status Update

In case you didn't know, thirty years ago today Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court as the first female Justice.  It was a huge deal at the time--a time when women were almost unheard of in positions of such moral and philosophical power.  If you follow the link, you can read the interview in which Justice O'Connor talks about the letters she got upon her appointment, including one in which one enlightening member of American society tells her to "get back to your kitchen."  But she didn't.  She accepted Regan's appointment to the Supreme Court and in doing so changed the role of gender in our legal system.  It has meant more to women in the U.S. than I think we realize, not only within the legal system but also in terms of beginning to provide powerful role models for girls in this country.  It's was and still is a big deal. 

But wait, you say--didn't we already do that like, a hundred years ago?  Wasn't that what the Seneca Falls Convention was all about?  Women can vote, and work, and go to war.  I mean--we won, right?

Not exactly.  Also, if you think this is about winning you are missing the point; stop reading now and save yourself the mental strain. 

Yes, women have made an enormous amount of progress in the last 150 years in terms of equality and equity (for a really good description about the difference between these two terms read this blog post about education, and then think more globally about gender, sexual orientation, etc).  But that doesn't mean that we have achieved equality, and we certainly haven't achieved equity in this society.  Here is the point where a lot of people think "Oh, she's one of those crazy feminists" and stop reading.  And you're right--it is a natural (although erroneous) leap to blame the other gender when issues arise.  But this isn't about men versus women.  Perhaps at one time it was; there was certainly a hierarchy of power in this country in July of 1948.  However, now, in July of 2011, it is less clear who is to blame.  And there are some very powerful women in this country, women who would argue that much of what remains unresolved about gender equity in this country stems from women, women who think that we "already won" and there is nothing else to do. 

Perhaps one of the most powerful speeches I have read recently came from the COO of Facebook.  Yes, Facebook.  And yes, COO.  If you are unfamiliar with the C-Suite of any company, the Chief Operations Officer is basically the number two at any company (just below the CEO, and just above the CFO).  The COO basically handles all of the day-to-day operational responsibilities.  So, this woman is Zuckerberg's right hand.  While he is out hunting his own food, she is running Facebook.

In May, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave this address to the graduating class at Barnard.  In it, she talks about the dearth of women in positions of power, particularly in the fastest growing sector of American business--technology.  In a similar interview, Google's Marissa Mayer talked about essentially the same thing.  (For those of you who don't know, Mayer is essentially Sandberg's counterpart at Google.  She started with the company when it had 12 employees, and has seen it through to the megalith that it is today.)  My sincere hope is that you will take the time to follow both of those links, and to hear what each of these women has to say in her own words.  However, if you don't, I will at least sum it up for you here:

Sandberg and Mayer both talk about how there is still a significant lack of women in high ranking positions in this country.  Mayer talks about this being the result of women not seeing technology as a viable option for women but instead as a male-centered world, particularly because of the cultural stereotypes of  computer geeks.  Sandberg talks in more general terms about the unbalanced number of men and women in high ranking jobs in government, education, and corporations.  While she admits it is vastly better than it was 30 or 40 or 100 years ago, she clearly states that it is still not good enough.  And that is the important piece to take away from either of these articles: we have done some work, yes, but we still haven't done enough.

And it is, in a lot of ways, our own fault.  Because we, as women, believe that the Seneca Falls Convention was "the work."  Or that when women finally started leaving the house and getting jobs in schools, factories, and business, that that was "the work."  But it was only part of it.  There is still a great deal more to be done.  Women are still overrepresented in the care industries (teaching and nursing, for example) and underrepresented in politics, the sciences, and technology.  There is still an enormous gap in gender equality and equity in this country.  As women, we have to be willing to continue doing the work of creating a more equitable culture.  Which is not easy work.  As both Sandberg and Mayer discuss, it is uncomfortable work.  It is the work of taking a job where you are the only woman on the payroll, where you don't feel like you have the background, or where each day presents a unique challenge.  It's the work of taking those jobs until the day it is no longer special or interesting that there is a woman in that position.  And even then, there will always be more work to maintain an equitable work culture.  That's just how it goes.

Some (a lot) of this stems from persistent cultural beliefs about gender roles, not only for women but for men as well.  While it is important to advocate for women to feel they have the power to leave the tradition role of homemaker if they so choose, it is also important to support men in assuming that role.  It is, after all, an extremely important role in a healthy, functioning society.  We have to be vigilant that we do not create that gap through our work for equality, as it serves no one well, least of all the next generation.  And this is where that subtle difference between equity and equality is so important.  We should not just be striving for a culture that is "fair."  Instead, we want one where each individual has access to the resources and the lifestyle that he or she needs to be successful and happy.  And that means supporting both women and men in their roles in and out of the home.

If you still haven't, now is the time that you really should read Sheryl Sandberg's commencement address, and Marissa Mayer's piece in the HuffPost.  There are about 15 really important things in each of them, and they are something that I intend to come back to in future posts.  For today, however, I think this is enough to think about.  For some people, that thinking may be limited to "Oh man, she totally IS one of those crazy feminists!"  But hopefully, for most of you, the thinking you will do today will be about the choices you make in your day to day life, and whether or not they contribute to equality or equity.  Maybe you will also think a little about what work you can do today to make sure you do contribute.

But whatever you are thinking by now, just don't think that someone else has already done the work, because they haven't and they won't.  It is up to you and me.  So, get to it.         

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