As a little girl raised in a liberal Jewish household, I never knew that, for most people, only men could be Rabbis. Likewise, I had no idea that in most households, the women were those taking care of most cleaning, cooking, and childcare. I certainly didn’t know that most moms didn’t stay at the office until way past their kids’ bedtimes. That wasn’t how my house ticked – my mother has always been more career-oriented than my father, and her career has always been more demanding. For years she worked as a clergy person at a synagogue downtown, and my father did most of the housework and child-rearing. I remember being continuously surprised that other dads didn’t bake cakes or do the laundry.
I’ll tell what I’ve always known, though. I will never be President. To be a leader at all, I will make some significant sacrifices. But perhaps that’s a grandiose example. I’ve also always known simpler things. Like the fact that, even though I’m notoriously bossy and opinionated, my opinion will count less when I’m in a room full of men, that my boss will probably be a man, and that when I’m not taken seriously in a workplace I should just deal with it or use my feminine wiles to get ahead. Whatever that means.
In 2010 the Census Bureau found that women made up 50.8% of the population of the USA. That is to say, the majority. And many of us are apparently very driven – according to the Center for American Progress we earn 60% of all undergraduate degrees, 47% of all law degrees, and 48% of all medical degrees. To be sure, this is progress. Look at any graph on the Census Bureau’s website, and you’ll see a steady climb of women’s participation in the workforce. One might be tempted to believe that our leadership would follow a similar pattern. In 2017, shouldn’t our upper management, our Senate, our Congress, be a picture of egalitarianism?
The answer is, of course, a resounding NO. Only 19.6% of Congresspeople and only 21% of Senators are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. I don’t even want to tell you what percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs we are (4.6%), what percent of top earners (8.1%), and what percentage rate of executive officer positions we hold (14.6%). Hey, that’s almost half, isn’t it? Just round up.
As women, we mostly know this already, even if we can’t recite the precise numbers. Ever since my first job, waiting tables at a café in high school, I’ve known that men call the shots in the world of employment. My first boss, the manager at the café, had a crush on my friend, a fellow waitress. He told her he thought she’d look cute waitressing barefoot, and maybe he’d make her shift manager if she would oblige him. We were 17, and he was 40. I still cringe when I think of her actually going along with it.
It’s unacceptable that young women anywhere should think that it’s plausible for a manager to request something like this. I had no idea that there were women managers out there when I was 17. Maybe if I had known I would have found a different job or urged my friend to refuse, but my knowledge of egalitarianism was, while broader than that of my peers’, still shockingly narrow.
Often I’ve heard people say that change takes time, citing the remarkable progress of the past 50 years in women’s role in the American workforce. They’re not entirely wrong, but I would temper that statement with another, complementary truth. Change happens when we demand it to happen, and although barriers may seem insurmountable, sometimes we just need a higher ladder and some more elbow grease to get over that hurdle.
One such example is Iceland, arguably the world’s most feminist country, where strip clubs and any other form of buying and selling humans is merely illegal, as of March 2010. It may seem difficult to imagine a USA without Hooters and other XXX clubs, but there it is, happening in northern Europe. When asked if she thought it would be difficult for men to acclimate to the new rule, Iceland’s Prime Minister said: “I guess the men of Iceland will just have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale.” More importantly, though, the women and girls of Iceland will have the opportunity to get used to the idea that they aren’t for sale. How will their sense of self-worth change when they are the ones to decide just what their worth is?
I have a dear friend who is the youngest ever member of the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset). She was voted into the Knesset at 28 and has been serving since as a member of the Labor party. She tells me often of the difficulties she faces – older Members of Knesset calling her ‘young lady,’ or talking over her at meetings or having her removed from the room for having an opposing opinion. In 2014 she spoke on the TED stage in Tel Aviv about the importance of young people, women, and other minorities engaged in politics. “You know,” she said, “if we had the courage to stand in front of half a million people and tell them that they should be hopeful because change is possible, we must have the courage to go and make this change happen.”
She’s right; it does take courage to question a status quo, especially one as long-standing as the gap in gender equality. It takes guts to stand in an uncomfortable place where we are certainly not wanted and to demand what we deserve. It’s scary to speak about discrepancies and to ask questions that have ugly answers. But these are all the only agents for change. If we want our daughters to see that they are equal, if we don’t demand that which we and they deserve, if we don’t stand up and point a finger at the gaps in fairness, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when progress is delayed and denied.
This illumination can take many forms. It could mean running for office, or starting a petition, or attending a rally, or sponsoring a law. But it can be much simpler than that. We can refuse to give in to the demeaning demands of an unfair boss. We can hire women, and then we can promote them to management positions. We can create art that expresses the absurdity of this situation and raises awareness to other ways the world could work. We can be a living example, by simply living our lives according to the values of equality and egalitarianism.