In January 2010, Rosie the Riveter appeared in the mailbox of my home near Seattle, flexing her iconic bicep on the cover of the Economist. The cover story struck a triumphant tone, reporting, “At a time when the world is short of causes for celebration, here is a candidate: Within the next few months women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce.” To mark the occasion, the magazine revised Rosie’s famous call to action from “We can do it!” to “We did it!”
As much as I appreciated Rosie’s enthusiasm, her declaration of victory felt premature. Even though American women did reach that 50% threshold in 2010 (and currently comprise 49.8% of the nonfarm workforce), the same old inequalities have simply followed us to new places. We still aren’t earning as much, rising as high, or having an equal voice in decision-making.
Across all aspects of American life, it is most often men who set policy, allocate resources, lead companies, shape markets, and determine whose stories get told. Meanwhile, what gains have been made typically haven’t extended to all women. The women historically the most marginalized in this country — including women of color, poor women, and lesbian and trans women — are still the most likely to be trapped in minimum-wage jobs, the least likely to hold managerial roles, and the most likely to face sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index measures gender equality based on women’s representation in the workforce and public office, as well as health and education outcomes. According to WEF’s projections, at the current rate of change the United States is still 208 years away from achieving gender equality (compared with Canada’s projected 51-year timeline and the United Kingdom’s 74-year timeline to close their gender gaps). Despite the frustrating pace of progress — or maybe because of it — something fundamental has begun to shift in the United States and around the world. Women are sharing their stories, marching, walking out, running for office, and winning elections in record numbers. The media is amplifying their voices and asking hard questions of the institutions that continue to lock women out. Business leaders are under new pressure to demonstrate that their companies care about gender equality and are committed to being part of the solution. Global leaders are now expected to have answers about how women and girls fit into their agendas.
The unprecedented energy and attention around gender equality makes this a moment when extraordinary progress is possible — and bold, ambitious goals are appropriate. We shortchange women if we set our sights too low. Aiming for parity in the workforce is not enough. Attempting to address intractable problems like harassment and pay disparities piecemeal — without recognizing that they are all parts of a broader whole — is not enough either. In order to seize this opportunity, we have to define our goals thoughtfully.
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