It’s a long way to gender equity

Michael Janofsky

At her confirmation hearing for elevation to the US Supreme Court two years ago, Amy Coney Barrett, a mother of seven, laughed when one senator posed what he called a sincere question. “I’m generally curious,” he said. “Who does the laundry in your house?” And there it was again. No matter how many women are achieving at the highest levels in their chosen fields, the national patriarchy is never far away, a constant reminder that gender inequality stays ingrained in American life. It’s hard to imagine asking a male nominee to the nation’s highest court a laundry question.

America has more women (50.8 per cent) than men and, in a wide array of pursuits, women are blasting through glass ceilings once considered unbreakable for all but white men. Yet for every woman who succeeds, countless others confront obstacles that keep them well distant from maximising their abilities and the rewards that would accrue to them. The good news is that women are making strides in high-value fields critical to the health and welfare of the nation, such as politics, business, science and entertainment. But these gains have also revealed just how far they are from attaining equality.

“When you look at the way the workplace is set up, it really hasn’t changed as much as it should have, obviously, over the past twenty years,” said Gloria Blackwell, chief executive of the American Association of University Women, a non-profit group focused on gender equity. “Women have demonstrated we can lead at the highest levels; we have been achieving educational degrees in record numbers at all levels. And that’s played a big role in women’s advancement. But it has not been the great equaliser that so many women had hoped for.”

In so many fields, she said, long-standing stereotypical attitudes have worked against women, from pay gaps and job opportunities to more nuanced differences, like grade school science teachers calling on boys more often than girls and female political candidates described as “pushy” when a comparable male would be “assertive.” Some stereotypes are dissolving, but change is slow. Beyond traditionally female roles like teaching, nursing and retail sales, men rule. 

Politics is one of the glaring examples, with male dominance in all three branches of the federal government. The United States remains one of the few western nations never to have a woman head of government. Three women — Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Sarah Palin in 2008 and Kamala Harris in 2020 — were vice presidential candidates on a ticket with a male for president. As Joe Biden’s running mate, only Harris succeeded. Nearly two dozen women have run for president over the years, but only Hillary Clinton came close to victory. While she won the popular vote over Donald Trump in 2016, she lost the Electoral College count, which determines the winner in America’s cockamamie selection system.

Trump deserves special mention here. His apparent disdain for women continued through his campaign and presidency, setting a tone that resonates with a large segment of the population. He disparaged women as sexual objects — remember the “Access Hollywood” tape? — and denied numerous accusations of sexual misconduct and extra-marital affairs. He even invited women who alleged they had affairs with Clinton’s husband, Bill, to be his special guests at a pre-election debate. He arranged for the accusers to have front-row seats, where Hillary Clinton couldn’t miss them. “Certainly, misogyny played a role. I mean, that just has to be admitted,” she said months after she lost. “And why and what the underlying reasons were is what I’m trying to parse out myself.”

While more women are winning seats in Congress, both the Senate and House of Representatives remain largely male domains, a disparity that reduces the influence women have in shaping new laws. Just 24 women currently serve in the 100-seat Senate, 121 in the 435-seat House. Vermont, by the way, a state represented by the country’s most progressive senator, Bernie Sanders, has never sent a woman to Congress. Nor did the Supreme Court have a woman justice until President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. Since then, twelve new justices have been seated, only four of them women, for a grand total of five over 233 years. It would become six if the Senate confirms Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace the retiring Stephen Breyer. She would be the first Black woman on the court. 

Among the 50 states, just nine governors are female.

Women hold positions as business leaders in rising numbers, but they still lag far behind in pay, earning 84 cents for every $1 earned by men, according to a 2020 Pew Research analysis. The latest survey of Fortune 500 companies found only 41 led by a woman, and a report by Morningstar in 2020 said female chief executives of major companies earned 75 per cent of what their male counterparts earned. Women are more visible in small business, but still lagging behind men, owning just 31 per cent of them, according to a Small Business Trends survey for 2021.

At the same time, as America’s labour force grows back after pandemic-related disruptions, men have returned to work at a faster pace than women, 70 per cent to 58 per cent, according to the US Department of Labour. The disparity is not entirely surprising in that women are generally more responsible for a family’s school and childcare responsibilities, which became even more challenging during the pandemic. Most schools turned to remote learning, forcing thousands of women to juggle their own remote work with monitoring their children — or not working at all. Advancement for women in entertainment is gaining a bit of momentum after decades of male domination even as the biggest film companies are still male dominated. More women are finding work as writers, producers and directors, but the percentages remain low. Between 2007 and 2021, women directed just 15 per cent of major studio films.

Well beyond the numbers, important aspects of American life are affected when outcomes are controlled by male decision-makers. Women would benefit most from proposals in Biden’s package of social and climate initiatives that has stalled in Congress by blanket Republican opposition in the Senate and several Democrats who argue the cost is too high. These measures include free pre-school for children aged three and four, money for childcare and tax credits for children up to age seventeen. The Supreme Court, which has six conservatives (including Barrett) and six men among the nine justices, is expected to deal women a huge blow in a case that would end the federal right to have an abortion, a law that has stood for 50 years. If the case, known as Roe v. Wade, is overturned, access to abortion would devolve to each state, creating severe burdens on women living where access to abortion is restricted. Almost half the states are projected to outlaw abortion if Roe is overturned.

The recent uptick in inflation also affects women in financial and psychological ways that might escape male attention. For example, as a family’s chief caregiver and shopper, a woman is more inclined to encounter the rising costs of everyday needs like groceries, clothing and childcare, putting added stress on the family budget. Dee Dee Myers was press secretary to President Bill Clinton and later corporate communications director for Warner Bros. She’s now a senior economic advisor to California Governor Gavin Newsom. As the author of Why Women Should Rule the World, a book that argues more women in leadership roles would enhance perspectives, collegiality and productivity, she applauds the advances women have made, propelled by a new push for diversity in all aspects of American life and the #Metoo movement, aimed at sexual abuse by powerful men. “We’ve definitely made progress,” she said. “I don’t want to be pollyannish about it. I’m sure there’ll be one step forward, two steps back in a lot of ways. But there are a lot of unstoppable trends.” 

Maybe the surest measures of progress are job opportunity, pay and recognising the value of diversity. So long as gaps remain, women will be pushing. The US national women’s soccer team pushed for three years before reaching a $24 million settlement last month in a gender-based discrimination lawsuit against the US Federation. “I am one of those hopeful individuals who sees us at a turning point,” Blackwell told me. “We can’t wait 100 years for gaps to close. I’m hoping we see true systemic change in the next decade. Women have more than reached a breaking point.” 

New York Times 1, Sarah Palin 0

Sarah Palin was always an odd choice to launch into national politics. As one-time governor of Alaska who resigned under a cloud of ethics complaints before her term ended, she became John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign. They lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Later, she became an author, TV personality, Donald Trump supporter, darling of the Republican right and a shoot-from-the-hip commentator. 

Last month, she popped back into the headlines in a new venue, a courtroom. As the plaintiff in a libel case against The New York Times, she claimed she was defamed by an errant passage written into a 2017 editorial that suggested one of her political ads had contributed to inciting a mass shooting. The paper admitted it had erred and wrote a correction the next day.

To prevail in a libel case, she had to reach a high bar, proving that the mistake reflected malice on the part of the paper and knowledge that the assertion was false. The trial lasted about a week. With jury deliberations underway, the presiding judge announced he would dismiss the case no matter how the jury decided, saying she failed to prove malice. A day later, the jurors came to the same conclusion. With an appeal likely, the case remains a worrisome test for all media organisations. A victory by Palin would tighten the latitude the law provides in commenting on public officials, something the conservative US Supreme Court might welcome if the case gets that far. 

For Feinstein, no end in sight

A lioness of the US Senate for thirty years, Dianne Feinstein of California is the chamber’s oldest member, turning 89 in June. With a storied political career that includes ten years as mayor of San Francisco, she won a special election to the senate in 1992, followed by five full six-year terms. She is perhaps best known as author of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which expired ten years later and failed to win renewal, unloosing thousands of military-style weapons for sale to ordinary citizens. If she completes her current term, she will become the longest-serving female senator in US history. She has already filed to run again in 2024, when she would be 91.

But prospects for another victory may be dimming. A recent poll by University of California Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found Feinstein’s approval rating at 30 per cent, the lowest of all her Senate years, and a disapproval of 49 per cent. The numbers were driven by the constituency most responsible for her enduring career: women. “For her to be underwater among female voters is a very significant and ominous sign,” Mark DiCamillo, the poll director, told the Los Angeles Times. The approval rating of another California female politician was almost as bad. Vice President Kamala Harris, the former state Attorney General, had 38 per cent approval and 46 per cent disapproval. “I was amazed at the disaffection for both of the women,” DiCamillo said.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times


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