For the last of our posts supporting International Women’s Day we are very lucky to have Liz Bonifield-Smith, a communications professional, as our first Guest Blogger – “Originally from St Louis, Missouri, I’ve been in the UK for 25 years but still haven’t lost my American accent. Go figure…”
As the long-winded US presidential election process plays out, it’s increasingly clear that Americans may soon have their first female president.
Every time I see Hillary on the stump, I’m reminded of a television commercial back when I was growing up in the Midwestern state of Illinois, with the slogan (and snappy little song) “You’ve come a long way baby!”.
The ad came out in 1967 and ran through the mid 1970s. It showed a woman in Victorian garb transforming into a modern version of herself while a male voice reminded her about all the restrictions that once plagued her, including – oh the horror! – not being able to smoke in front of a man. But we ladies could rest easy. Virginia Slims cigarettes had a mellow favour and it’s slender shape was tailored to us girls so we could start racing the boys towards lung cancer.
Hooray for gender parity!
Equal access to lung cancer aside, women have continued to struggle for equal treatment and representation in many aspects of life, especially in leadership positions. The World Economic Forum reports that although half of the US workforce is female, only 5.2% of CEOs and 17% of board members are female. And while its great to see Hillary running as a serious contender for one of the most powerful positions in the world, the US comes in at 29—just below Swaziland— on a list ranking countries by female representation in high government positions, according to a UN report.
Hillary Clinton is a known supporter of gender equality, especially in positions of authority and leadership. Among other statement she has said, “It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.”
The Honorable Nancy J. Rosentengel has one of those places. In 2015 she was appointed by President Barack Obama as the first ever female district judge for southern Illinois. The district court is part of the federal court system, and Nancy’s decisions in criminal and civil cases directly affect the fate of the individuals and organisations involved.
Talent and hard work over the years have got her where she is, but Nancy also got lucky.
“When I was appointed, there was a general acknowledgement that we needed more diversity on the bench. That definitely gave me an edge. Even so, some people – some men – objected to my appointment simply because I’m a woman.”
Nancy, like Hillary, is a strong believer in the benefits of gender diversity. Hillary has said that “when women participate in peace-making and peace-keeping, we are all safer and more secure.” Nancy believes that the empathy women bring to leadership in business and public service helps to ensure fairness and sustainability.
But here’s the rub: a woman who leads is still tacitly expected to fulfil all the traditional responsibilities and excel as a leader. Despite it being commonplace now for men to have a bigger role with the home and children and for women to build careers, it is almost always mothers who leave early or come late because of children’s doctors appointments, school plays, etc.
As Nancy observes, “You still get a sense that it’s expected of women. If a man does it, people talk about what a great dad he is. When a woman does it, it’s just what women do, right? I was lucky to have a supportive husband and help around the house. A lot of women don’t have that.”
True gender parity isn’t just about elevating more women into the board room or the higher political echelons. It’s about creating a world in which there are far fewer gender-based expectations for people to live up to.
Yes, women and men bring different approaches to the table, and we should celebrate those differences. But it’s far more important that we create world in which individuals can explore and apply their unique talents and personalities to contribute to their families, communities and society in general.
Oxfam America suggested five every day actions you can take to promote gender equality, among them raising kids to reject gender ‘norms’, including men and boys in conversations that have historically been ‘female territory’ and calling attention to gender inequality when you see it.
Everyday actions. What could be simpler. And if enough of us do it, maybe it won’t take another 117 years to get there.
[Liz Bonifield-Smith, Guest Blogger]