July 19, 2012

The Real Gender Gap. ~ Melanie Curtin

“One must always be aware, to notice, even though the cost of noticing is to become responsible.” Thylias Moss

The 2012 National Magazine Awards finalists were announced a few short months ago. Within hours of the announcement, the online magazine Jezebel tweeted the following: “Nat’l Mag Award noms: ZERO women nominated for [the categories of] reporting, features, profiles, essays or columns.

Jezebel noticed something.

My freshman year at Stanford I took Computer Science 101. It was a major gateway class for the many students who would go on to major in CS or Engineering. I took it because I lived in Silicon Valley and believed I had a duty to at least know what all the fuss was about.

The first day, I was pleased to see that my professor was a woman. She looked to be in her mid-30s, with short blonde hair and a distinctive, annoying laugh that became endearing as the quarter wore on. She proved an efficient educator with an enthusiastic, entertaining teaching style, a strong sense of how she wanted the class to go, and an excellent ability to adapt to the needs of the students.

One day, as she gave a directive to a male TA, I remember thinking, “this woman is a role model.” Even at 18, I was aware of how different and inspiring it was to have a real-world, sustained experience of female leadership. I wondered how many of my fellow students had even registered that fact.

By the time I graduated, I could still count the number of woman professors I’d had on one hand. It was less than five. But it had taken a student demonstration about the number of women faculty to get me to think about that.

I had barely noticed.

Years later, I had a similar moment watching the second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Well into hour two, I became aware of just how few women there were in either film.

To me, the bizarre part wasn’t the striking absence of estrogen on the screen; it was turning around to briefly glance at the theater full of people mechanically feeding themselves popcorn and lamenting the fate of the shire, and having the strong sense that almost no one (neither the men nor the women) was thinking what I was thinking.

They hadn’t even noticed.

I’m not suggesting that a fictional account of hobbits be mandated to have more women, nor that there should be an official mandate on magazine awards. I’m pointing out something more insidious: that when I hear about things like there not being a single women nominated, my first thought isn’t, “why not?” It’s, “wow. If someone hadn’t pointed this out, would I have noticed?”

It’s one thing to notice. It’s another to take responsibility, which in some cases means holding others accountable for phenomena of this kind. So I’m going to come out and say it: The American Society of Magazine Editors should have done better than this. They should have nominated more women.

There are usually two arguments for why women are passed over in these situations. First, the men’s articles were, simply, better. Women were considered (there must have been some that were at least considered, right?) but the men’s material happened to be better.

But let’s be honest: when it comes down to it, awards are fairly arbitrary. Once you pass a certain level of talent, choosing a winner is a subjective and somewhat random exercise; all the finalists are excellent, so why should one win over another? There are outstanding women journalists, reporters and fiction writers—in every category.

Perhaps when it comes to choosing winners (who go on to become role models), those in decision-making positions actually have some responsibility to ensure that more than just one group is represented.

The second argument is usually the deceptively “accurate” line of reasoning that there aren’t as many female writers/editors/lawyers/you name the field that has come under attack for under-representing women. (Different people say this in different ways; Larry Summers might say the women had less variance, and therefore didn’t end up in the top echelons.)

But even if this is true of the magazine industry (suspend your disbelief with me), so what? Man up (pun intended), do the right thing and find them. There were five winners in each category of the National Magazine Awards—would it really have been so difficult to find at least one woman for each?

What about Kate Bolick, who wrote “All The Single Ladies” for The Atlantic—an article that was the most popular piece on TheAtlantic.com in 2011, went on to be reprinted on six continents, and sparked debate all across popular culture as well as academia both domestically and abroad?

The argument that it’s “hard” or “too hard” to find women who excel in any field is a fallacy. Yes, there may be fewer of them because of the legacy of gender discrimination in this country, but they do exist. And in order for the culture to fundamentally shift, we all have a responsibility to support them and highlight their achievements—not necessarily above men’s, but right up there alongside them.

Finding and honoring women matters. It matters not only to the women themselves, but also to the girls and young women who are aspiring authors, songwriters, actresses, politicians, CEOs. Award nominations are important not only because they recognize the individual, but because they provide an example for others of what is possible—what they can realistically strive for.

A hundred years ago, women couldn’t even vote in this country; today we have a woman Speaker of the House. Fifty years ago, many women were expected to go to college solely to “find a man;” today that idea is laughable. Twenty years ago there were four women senators (out of 435); today there are 17.

Things are changing. And they’re changing relatively quickly when one takes a long-range view. At the same time, just three years ago, in 2009, the median income for full-time, year-round male employees was $47,127; for women, it was $36,278. Anyone who says men and women have true equality in this country is kidding him/herself.

We’re closer. Today we don’t have obvious gender discrimination without political and social repercussions—one needs look no further than advertisers tripping over themselves to drop Limbaugh. But we also don’t have real equality, which is reflected in seemingly ‘harmless’ things like the lack of women nominated for magazine awards.

It’s going to take all of us rowing together to close the gap. It’s going to take that one brave intern speaking up when she/he reads the list of winners of a competition, saying, “um, I don’t see any women here…do we want to address that?” It’s going to take a TV or film producer specifically choosing to support a woman screenwriter and director, knowing that all the people on set, in the network rooms, and on TV when she wins an Academy Award, will look up to her.

It’s going to take a boss consciously electing to promote a woman because she’s good and because she will be a role model for younger associates. It’s going to take everyone working together; it’s going to take time; it’s going to take intention; and it’s going to take us all noticing.

So thank you, Jezebel, for noticing. And for speaking up.

Thank you, too, to all the current and future women and men who notice, take responsibility, and work for gender equality in their own small and large ways. A father who tells his daughter, “you can do it,” and then helps her do just that, is just as important as a brave and worthy editor at a magazine organization who says, “this is unacceptable. We can’t have five major categories where there isn’t a single woman represented. Let’s go back to work.

Ironically, we will know the gender gap has truly closed when we don’t notice things like how many women are nominated for an award, because it’s just naturally about half. We’ll know when boards of directors of all the Fortune 500 companies are half women. We’ll know when women chefs grace the covers of cooking magazines just as often as men, and hospital chiefs are half women.

And we’ll know when schoolchildren take for granted that the U.S. Congress isn’t 17 percent female, as it is right now, but 51 percent, reflecting the breakdown of the general population. We’ll know when a little girl looks at all those women in Congress, says, “someday, I’m going to do that,” and we don’t find that unusual in the least.

It’s always good to notice. Sometimes it’s even better not to.

Melanie Curtin is a dating coach and the force behind Vixen on the Loose, a sassy blog and forum committed to educating and titillating in equal parts. She is convinced her generation can “do” sex and dating better, and her goal is to spark the conversations necessary for this to be the case. Both lightning rod and spitfire, she invites you to unleash your inner vixen by unabashedly expressing her own.


Editor: Anne Clendening

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