We women's rights and women's equality supporters have a golden opportunity right in front of us these days. I've been writing about it for several years now in a wide variety of venues, and I've decided it's time for us to act. The action right now is phase 1, the first step in our march towards finally achieving the kind of economic and power parity we have longed for and has eluded us.
If you've read my stuff, clearly you will understand that I am not advocating a legislative solution. If we start acting by demanding that new laws be passed, we're going to gain absolutely nothing but derision, and we will end up in the same stalled place we are right now. In my piece Women Are Held Hostage By Party Rhetoric, and also in pieces about sexism from the left and sexism from the right, it is pretty clear that going the legislative route will cause the left and right to take up their positions throwing tomatoes at one another, and our intent will get chewed up in a partisan brouhaha. Worse, say we do put a piece of legislation out there, it could get repeatedly tabled while "more important things" are dealt with. As long as a piece of legislation has been drafted and submitted, it becomes a great thing for people to hide behind saying that they're working on women's stuff while doing absolutely nothing and blaming the inaction on the other side. Taking that approach would be insanity-----it has rarely worked in our favor of late.
I'm not suggesting any street theater either. The value of demonstrations and the like can be dicey. Although you might be able to stage these actions, it's alot of work, and the message you send out isn't always the message you'd intended. For women, we'd invariably fall into yet another stereotyped image of derision, that of "women's lib types" and "bra burners" that would not only detract from our mission but would lose the message altogether.
The way I see it, our opportunity lies in creating a cultural shift in the way we are thinking as Americans. This shift is something that our country is ripe for. More women are getting closer than ever to the glass ceilings, and more people are thinking that we should be shattering them. We are lacking a couple components in this breakthrough and we can make these corrections, each and every one of us, in our daily lives.
The answers to this phase 1 of action lie in 2 things:
1. educating people about where women's progress really lies
2. stopping all sexist stereotypes dead in their tracks
All of us who believe that women are underrepresented at the top need to just start talking about it to everyone. Here are some ways to do it.
First of all, I have noticed a few things in these conversations. One is that most people are shocked to learn that women haven't advanced as far as they thought they had. It is very powerful to tell people the statistics on that score. Here is a list of these sorry stats with links to support their claims:
1) we have never had a woman president of the United States
2) women make 75% of what men make for the same work
3) the U.S. ranks #70 in the world for female representation in government
4. women hold 2.7% of the CEO positions in the Fortune 1000 companies
5. we also hold about 24% of state legislative seats and hold 6 out of 50 governorships
6. women hold 20% of senior management and board positions, down from 24% in 2009, and there are more companies with NO females in management than ever before
Sadly, we could spend all day compiling lists and lists of these types of stats. It's depressing. But I use the ones I've listed above often, and I mention them every chance I get. People are stunned to learn these things. You will discover the same thing when you bring it up. The positive news is that people feel really really bad about it and it pricks their consciences. It is important to get this news out in any conversation you can because people will continue to repeat this information in other conversations they have. It's 21st century consciousness raising. And the good news is that wherever a person is on the ideological scale, their reaction is uniformly the same------shock and disbelief. I believe that by educating people and by repetition, the will to change this situation will grow.
Secondly, we must stop expressions of sexism dead in their tracks whenever they come up. It requires courage to do it. After all, for most of us, it is our instinct to not make waves even when something someone is saying is just plain wrong. But let me give you a few personal anecdotes. I'm 58 years old and Jewish. I grew up in a place where there weren't many Jews. Once I married 38 years ago, I took my Italian husband's name. Between my childhood of being the sole Jew in many situations to my adulthood of passing for an Italian, I have heard tons of anti-semitic slurs. I never let any of them go by without commenting and here's what I've learned. Most of the time when people say such things, it is out of total ignorance. They don't mean it the way we take it. So, I've actually given them an chance to eliminate that expression from their social interactions because most people don't really want to offend. They just don't realize how offensive they are being.
I've adopted the same stance in regard to sexist expressions. It's funny actually. Most people don't think that they are being sexist at all and they don't see themselves as sexist. So I take a soft approach and tell them, "yes, I know that YOU aren't sexist at all, but to some, that phrase is really upsetting and I know you wouldn't want to upset anyone. So I felt sure that you'd want to know."
The important thing in stopping sexist expressions is that we need to redevelop a sense of shame in using such slurs. I'm not suggesting we become the PC police here either. It's just that there's a much bigger principle at stake. If a woman can be so easily marginalized by slurring her, and we all know that it happens all of the time, we need to just stop the slurs. Surely those glass ceilings will remain unbroken if we don't.
Also I am aware that defining a sexist slur is in itself a difficult task. I remember when I made the rounds of the TV news shows and every single one of the interviewers from Bill O'Reilly to Jake Tapper to Larry King on down wanted a definition of what a sexist slur would be. It was a tough thing to answer. I was somewhat relieved when I saw the likes of Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem hemming and hawing about it as badly as I was. But I've decided that for our task of stomping out every sexist slur that comes up, I use the following guideline----if it feels sexist, speak up. It would be better to err for the moment on the side of going with your gut. Any other way would be the same old folks just trying to shut us down and silence us.
It's an enormous task. But sentiment is on our side. We just need to speak up courageously. It might seem that one person educating and standing up to another really is too small a thing to matter. I disagree. I believe what Buddha said:
Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle
And also what Confucius said:
To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order. To put the family in order, we must first cultivate the personal life. We must first set our hearts right.
And finally, Mother Teresa:
We ourselves feel that what we do is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.
Each and every one of can create an amazing ripple effect. That ripple effect will multiply into a tsunami. And that tsunami will help us break every glass ceiling once and for all. But step 1: we need to educate and we need to stop the sexist slurs. Everywhere. Everyday. Each one of us. We are all in this together, and believe me when I say it-----YOU MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Let's get busy!!!