Women’s History: Writing the Next Chapter
by President Patricia McGuire ’74
Today, we think about women’s history. The theme this year is Women as Builders of Communities and Dreams. That’s nice, but not the whole story. Let’s face it: women have only had the right to vote for 85 years – in the lifetime of our mothers and grandmothers, we were disenfranchised in this great nation. Women still only earn, on average, 77% of men’s earnings for the same work (68% for African American women, 57% for Latina women). Women hold only 12% of board seats in Fortune 500 corporations.1 Only two women are CEOs of the 500 corporations on the Fortune list; 90% of those 500 companies have no – ZERO – women officers. These numbers tell us something very important: the revolution is far from over. History is yet to be written on the subject of women’s advancement. We are the authors of the next chapter of women’s history, and these are our themes….
We owe it to the great women who achieved so much in our history to continue their great work, to write the next chapter of women’s history with even more zeal. What are we going to write about in this chapter? Let me mention three themes that have particular urgency today:
- Securing widespread acceptance of women as leaders, top executives and professionals; it is one thing to get the job, it is another to be accepted into the leadership club;
- Ending the continuing prevalence of sexual harassment and the objectification of women in our culture;
- Global women’s education.
First, let’s consider the challenge of securing widespread acceptance of women as leaders, top executives and senior managers. This seems timely this week as the nation of Chile inaugurates its first woman president, Michele Bachelet. Germany also recently elected its first woman chancellor, Angela Merkel.
But here in the United States, talk of potential female candidates for the presidency seems more grist for the anti-feminist mill rather than a serious proposition. In spite of the many able women who could be president, is the U.S. electorate ready to make a serious choice of a female commander-in-chief? I think it’s still years if not decades away.
So many unspoken cultural prejudices work against women attaining high office whether through election, appointment or advancement in the private sector. I have a saying: the higher you get on the ladder, the closer you are to the glass ceiling, the more clearly you can see through to the other side….
One of the alarming consequences of the Age of Super-woman that we experienced in the 1980s and 1990s is a new Age of Lower Sights on the part of many younger women today. One bellweather of this problem is the deficit in women partners at law firms. While women are 48% of law students and 44% of associates in law firms, only 17% of law firm partners are women.2 Studies have shown that one of the problems today is that women choose to opt out long before the partnership decision is made. Similar statistics exist in the world of public accounting, where only 19% of the partners are female, and studies show that women tend to be far less likely to desire partnership than men.3
Studies reveal that women are choosing to opt out of the drive to the top; that work/life balance issues are increasingly important as offsets to the idea of becoming the top leader. But equally important, the studies also continue to show that part of the reason why women drop out of contention for partnerships and top jobs is that they just don’t think that they can really break through the gender-normed cultures at the top – those cultures that tend to be shaped around the men’s golf clubs and other rites of maleness. Pioneering is hard work, and of course, there’s always the danger of slipping off the saintly pedestal of the noble pioneer and down into the hellhole of demonization – that can happen when you misread the signs of inclusion as invitations to participate, which are two entirely different behaviors inside the club. There’s a great deal of stress around developing a reputation as a “mouthy woman” even if you only speak once in any given meeting.
Let’s turn to my second issue: ending sexual harassment and the objectification of women in our culture. This is a problem fed in part by the voracious media and entertainment machine. Mass culture continues to objectify women in ways that emphasize looks and sexual characteristics over intellect, talent and measurable achievements in a vast spectrum of human endeavors. Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a Space Shuttle gets 270,000 mentions on Google, but Dynasty’s Joan Collins gets 2 million.
So, how do we tackle this issue? How do we end the exploitation of women and improve the global opportunities for women to have equal access to work, wages and lifelong economic security?
Education must be the answer. The education of women and girls is the single most powerful weapon at our disposal in the war on poverty, the eradication of disease, the improvement of conditions for children and families all over the earth. Easier said than done. Around the world, more than 900 million people are illiterate, and fully two-third of those, 600 million, are female; 65 million girls who should be in school are not receiving any form of education.4…
The impact of educated women on children, families, communities, private and governmental organizations around the world is incalculable. We must keep writing the history of women’s educational attainment through improving educational opportunities for women everywhere in the world.
The most important thing the United States government can do to improve the condition of women in this nation and around the world, and, therefore, to improve the condition of children and families, is to promote a more ambitious global agenda for the education of women and girls….
Women’s colleges continue to exist today because women still need the opportunities to excel in places that take them seriously. Trinity, like many woman-centered universities and colleges, also welcomes men into many of our programs, but we place women’s learning at the center of our mission and programs…. On too many university campuses, women are relegated to sitting high up in the bleachers, cheering for a few men tipping off at center court. March Madness exemplifies the problem. How many people in this town have the women’s brackets posted on their walls? How many have serious money riding on the women’s teams?
Trinity and other woman-centered institutions in the nation’s cities have also taken as a modern restatement of our historic missions the education of women who have historically been left outside of the educational clubs entirely: low income women, African American and Latina women, women whose families do not have long traditions of educational success. For all of the great examples of women who have made it to the top in this country, there are millions more who wake up in the morning wondering if they will ever be able to break through the cycles of poverty, violence and illiteracy that prevent improvement in their economic condition….
The revolution is far from over. Even as we tackle the global challenge of women’s education, we need to stay vigilant at home that we do not let short-sighted mythologies about equality having been achieved blind us to the reality that gender and race discrimination remains a real barrier to educational opportunity and economic security for far too many women and girls.
And so, we write another page of our history, women’s history. We write about credibility, ambition, dignity, educational opportunity, economic security. We write women’s history today with a profound sense of gratitude to the great women who blazed the trails to the summits on which we stand today. And as we look out from this perch we see even higher peaks ahead. So we lay down these words as ropes to the top, confident in our ability to reach that distant goal, lifting each other as we climb, hopeful that those who come after us will find the way just a little easier for the footprints we have left along the way.
1 Source: Catalyst http://www.catalystwomen.org/
2 Source: http://www.law.virginia.edu/home2002/html/news/2006_spr/gorman.htm Law firms that have greater proportions of male partners and that value stereotypically male characteristics may be less likely to hire and promote female candidates, according to U.Va. sociology professor Elizabeth Gorman, who spoke at a talk sponsored by Virginia Law Women Feb. 15.
3 The study, “A Decade of Changes in the Accounting Profession: Workforce Trends and Human Capital Practices,” was conducted under the aegis of the AICPA’s Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee and explored a wide range of topics, including career advancement, turnover, and mentoring. Source: http://accounting.smartpros.com/x51887.xml
4 Data from UNESCO Global Equity report.