What Are We Missing on Women’s Empowerment?

Heading social media for a female professional network, I get paid to educate myself on women’s rights and female empowerment. Even better, I get paid to complain about sexism on Twitter! Like most things, it was all great until I started asking questions.

Why is the mere competence of a female leader “newsworthy?”

Certainly, by virtue of spearheading world-changing innovations, transactions, and donations, many leaders of both genders merit headlines. What I’m referring to is the ubiquitous profile of that “strong female” leader, centered not on her business achievements or innovations but how she managed to achieve it all despite her gender. The newsworthy status of these “strong females” implies that their leadership constitutes a departure from a norm. No matter how well-intentioned, these stories reinforce stereotypes of female passivity that have impeded our potential for centuries. Not even our nation’s most prominent women are immune to this attitude, as indicated by the media’s breathless questions of “Why would Hillary Clinton choose a female running mate?” (So maybe Sarah Palin wasn’t the best example, but with over 50 million eligible women in the United States, at least one of us won’t fuck it up as badly as Dick Cheney.)

Instead of portraying women as exceptions to the rule, we need to normalize their leadership. Because even if women eventually earn the same incomes as men, true gender equality won’t be achieved until strength and leadership are as automatically, implicitly associated with femininity as they are with masculinity.

Why the hyperfocus on STEM and finance?

Underlying the media’s obsession with STEM and finance is a convenient narrative, one that shifts responsibility for the gender pay gap from structural inequalities of society to individual decisions of women. It’s not that hiring managers implicitly perceive women as weak followers. It’s not the rigid 9-to-5 (or increasingly, 8-to-5, 8-to-6, or never turn off your smartphone) office culture that disproportionately forces moms off the professional pipeline. No, the problem lies with the girls who developed a paralyzing fear of numbers during middle school, prompting them to forgo lucrative STEM careers for lower-paying humanities-focused industries. To close the gender pay gap, by this logic, we just need to convince teenage girls that numbers don’t bite, get all of them coding, and direct them toward high salaries in Silicon Valley and Wall Street.   

But all the coding camps in the world won’t end workplace gender inequality. Concerns about female underrepresentation in Silicon Valley are well justified, but on its own, it’s a simplistic conclusion that ignores the systemic nature of workplace sexism. Regardless of their required skillsets, average salaries in previously male-dominated industries drop when they become more concentrated with women. So once when they enter STEM and finance, women won’t receive higher salaries. The average pay of STEM and finance jobs will drop instead. Whether they’re coding, modeling, or writing, we don’t value women. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/upshot/as-women-take-over-a-male-dominated-field-the-pay-drops.html)

Exhibit A: freelance writers. Despite utilizing traditionally “female” skillsets, despite making up 71% of the industry, female freelancers only “earn 55% of what their male counterparts make.” . (http://www.fastcompany.com/3058978/pretend-youre-a-white-male-freelancings-gender-problem)

Where are the resources for middle and lower-income women?

The STEM obsession also shortchanges middle- and lower-skill women, whose plights are ignored by the common media. But without the economic security of their white collar counterparts, middle- and lower-skill women less equipped for combating sexism at work. With a storied tech career and two advanced degree as backup, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned and filed a successful anti-discrimination suit against her company when her situation became intolerable. But for women whose access to affordable healthcare hinge on their employment, for women living paycheck to paycheck, quitting or even going to HR aren’t realistic options (http://fortune.com/2016/03/24/women-welder-mechanic-close-pay-gap/)

Furthermore, what about service industry workers? Even Netflix, one of those paragons of progressivism, limited its new unlimited paid maternity leave policy to “salaried streaming employees,” leaving its hourly employees without recourse. Of course, with foodservice and retail companies depriving employees of full schedules and health benefits, mothers in the service-industry workers might just be satisfied with getting a ultrascreen covered.

Now what?

The example of my network’s amazing women.

Every day, news of their accomplishments inundate my inbox, which provides a heartening counter-narrative to the story of female subjugation. Each Thursday, I compile all their board appointments, speaking engagements, $100K+ charitable initiatives, book releases, and even a campaign announcement into a weekly newsletter, itself an overflowing laundry list of female achievement. Week after week, their leadership and mentorship exemplifies and redefines female success for myself and the next generation of women.

But given their social and economic status, citing their successes as evidence of gender equality is like using one student’s A+ to prove a teacher’s competence. Encouraging? Yes. Sufficient? Hardly.

Thus, empowering women requires empowering ourselves.

Because so much of this discrimination is steeped in obscure policy, empowering yourself through education is crucial. I’d encourage digging more deeply into sexual harassment and workplace discrimination policies to find the substantial exceptions to legal protections. During your daily commute, update yourself on women’s empowerment with email newsletters from Fortune’s Broadsheet. Similarly, once you train yourself to ignore the trolls, Twitter offers top-notch thought leadership on women’s issues. Must-follows includes New York Times’ @WomenintheWorld, @levo,  and Sheryl Sandberg’s @LeanInOrg (not to mention that I’m good for 7+ tweets per day). 

It also requires empowering other women.

That we shouldn’t be bashing other women should be obvious, but if you’re playing that passive aggressive game, cut that shit out.

More important, though, is mentoring. Whether through damaging media representations of women or the attitudes of their families, our generation’s marginalization of women is already impacting the next generation. To counteract these negative influences, we need to throw our unequivocal support behind tomorrow’s women. My organization hosts monthly outreach events on college campuses to share their expertise with female engineering and MBA students, but even an informal coffee chat or phone call can provide women the sounding board they need.

Even if like me, you’re in zero position to offer career advice, you can spread your knowledge. You can advocate for  better rape-kit testing technology, more representation in local and state politics, fairer representations in film and TV. By directing your dollars to female-friendly companies, you can give companies financial incentives for gender equality.

You can consider a centuries-long tradition of discrimination, from pay disparities to bodily autonomy to sexual harassment, political exclusion, and offensive advertisements, and say,” I’m not standing for that.”  

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