A joint resolution of Congress in 1973 declared August 26 “Women’s Equality Day,” an annual commemoration of the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. In retrospect, the official recognition seems remarkably progressive, considering only 3 percent of congressional seats were held by women at the time. The president gave his full endorsement,
“The struggle for women's suffrage … was only the first step toward full and equal participation of women in our Nation's life. In recent years, we have made other giant strides by attacking sex discrimination through our laws and by paving new avenues to equal economic opportunity for women. Today, in virtually every sector of our society, women are making important contributions to the quality of American life. And yet, much still remains to be done. American women, though they represent a majority of our population, still suffer from myriad forms of discrimination.”
Richard Nixon’s remarks ring as true today as they did 44 years ago. Women’s Equality Day 2017 offers an opportunity to celebrate strides toward gender parity and consider steps needed to fully realize this vision.
First, recent successes: According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the number of women in Congress and state legislatures has crept upward over the last 45 years and now hovers under 25 percent. Both the number and proportion of eligible women voters have exceeded men in every election since 1980. And in an important landmark, a woman ran as presidential candidate for a major American political party last year — and won the popular vote, if not the election. The 2016 film 50/50, completed just after the election, examines the global trajectory of women in powerful political and executive positions and questions what it will take to achieve greater gender balance across all levels of society.
We can celebrate advances in legal protections against discrimination and promoting equal opportunity. Another piece of legislation signed by President Nixon was the Education Amendments of 1972, including Title IX, which dramatically expanded women’s access to scholarships and participation in athletic activities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. And more recently, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by President Obama in 2009, created federal legislation protecting women from wage discrimination on the basis of sex.
Still, as the statistics above suggest, more work is necessary to advance women’s representation in positions of power and decision-making, as well as in the pipelines preparing women to assume these positions. The number of women holding statewide elective office has actually declined since 1995, to around 23 percent, and only one in five mayors of cities with populations over 30,000 are women.
Recent events in the technology sector have highlighted disparities in gender equity and the atmosphere that is both cause and effect of this gap. First-hand accounts range from the now-famous narratives from women at Uber, the venture capital investment firm Kleiner Perkins and elsewhere, to the memo from the Google engineer suggesting biological reasons for the lack of women’s attainment in the sector. Blogs are full of devastating articles recounting harassment across the tech sector, including in academia, which has struggled with its own response to sexual harassment claims. Leaders from industry, academia and government have grappled with possible responses to the high-profile documentation of damaging workplace climate, along with company-sponsored reports of diversity metrics.
The mainstream media has also embraced coverage of the hostile work environment for highly educated women, such as the cover article in April’s The Atlantic, “Why is Silicon Valley so Awful to Women?” and a recent New York Times op-ed about the toxic environment for women in economics.
Aside from these high-profile incidents of harassment, sexism and unfair working conditions, gender inequality can be more insidious when it is a structural feature of economic inequality that affects women disproportionally. For example, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, two-thirds of whom are women, has been stalled at $2.13 per hour for 25 years. Out of 23.5 million people working low-wage jobs in America (those making less than $15 per hour), 19 million are women. Because about a third of them are mothers of dependent children, fixing wage and status inequality would lift not just the individual women out of poverty but their children and families as well.
Where is the motivation, strategic vision and political will to address these issues? Increasing evidence shows that diversity in the workplace produces better decisions. Prominent companies, professional associations, and institutions have made substantial investments to celebrate diversity and foster an inclusive environment, assuming that through these we may come to appreciate and learn from each other’s differences. A parallel effort to emphasize our common interests may also be effective to create a path for satisfying and creative professional lives among diverse groups.
We need men and women together as leaders and allies in this campaign for change. Statements such as the one co-authored by the former president of Stanford University, a prominent UC Berkeley computer scientist and Google staff member and the president of Harvey Mudd College deserve recognition and should be joined by many more. Inequality of compensation, respect, and opportunity is not just a “women’s problem;” it hinders progress for technological advancement, educational attainment and our common humanity.