When General Motors announced that Mary Barra would be the first female CEO of a Big Three automaker this week, there was much excitement. But wait. No, there’s nothing to be excited about, right? We’re supposed to be not so excited, because boys and girls are the exact same so what’s the big deal? No big deal.
YOU GUYS, IT’S A BIG DEAL.
Yes, men and women should be entirely interchangeable in the halls of power in global corporations, but right now (and at no point in human history preceding it) that has not been the case. Despite the fact that companies with greater female representation on their executive leadership teams have quantifiably higher ROI, the percentage of female CEO is only 14% globally (up from 9%!). Reminder, women make up more than 50% of all humans, so that’s pretty abysmal.
Women in power means more diversity corporations, which means less groupthink and more sanity. It’s important for young girls to have these role models, and it’s important for a world that is controlled by an only slightly less homogenous class of rule makers and gatekeepers than it was a century ago.
As a woman, I appreciate that urge to pretend like it’s not a big deal that Mary Barra is a woman. I know it comes from a place of political correctness and the desire to be living in a genderless power utopia. But we’re not there yet. And until we are, Mary Barra’s new job is exciting. Marissa Mayer is exciting. Sheryl Sandberg is exciting. And come 2016, I think we all know who else is going to be exciting. So go ahead. Express some celebratory interjections. Count this as the progress that it is. And get used to it, because as we have every right to keep it going until all things are truly equal, it looks like this party is going to be raging awhile.
It’s rough caring about so much shit all the time, amiright? Life gives enough personal tough stuff, and then society comes along throws a bunch of other stuff at us.
For instance, as my husband can attest actually happened a few months ago, sometimes you’re having a fine day and then you find out the Right to Life of Michigan is using insane, backchannel legislative methods to push an extreme, anti-choice bill into law, even though our Republican governor already vetoed it, and you have a complete emotional meltdown. Other times, there’s another shooting in another public place and you can’t even. You can’t even. Sometimes you read a headline about another female celebrity bragging about how she’s not a feminist, and it takes over the rest of your day with rage posting. And other days you are so freaked out about the yelling and screaming over Obamacare that you can’t even yell back anymore, you just want walk into traffic, even though that would result in medical bills so high you would be financially ruined for life because everyone won’t stop yelling about making healthcare affordable and not stupid, OH MY GOD, HILLARYHURRYUPANDSAVEUSFROMTHISALREADY.
It doesn’t take much effort to find feminism cynics out there. In fact, it’s pretty darn easy to find cynics of every variety. Sometimes it’s hard to even see past the blanket of cynicism that hangs over nearly everything. It’s easier to say feminism (or healthcare reform or food stamps, etc.) is unneeded, unwarranted, overblown or downright evil than it is to accept that we live in a challenging world that requires us to examine our beliefs and behaviors and move out of our comfort zones to make life better for others. I get that. It’s tough, and the evidence is everywhere.
What did surprise me though, was a feature on Malala Yousafzai on BBC radio this week. The first half of the report included people from her hometown in Pakistan talking about how her reputation was overblown, raising suspicions about whether or not the girl who was so famously shot in the head for standing up for her right to go school was even injured at all, and generally stating that she shouldn’t come back. While their cynicism was shocking enough, as the BBC reporter transitioned into her interview with Malala, she said she was actually surprised to discover what a poised, sincere and believable young woman she was.
Really? You’re surprised that a teenager who stood up for girls’ right to education against the Taliban, faced an assassination attempt, recovered from a bullet to the head and is still actively campaigning is a sincere person? That is a surprise? In what world could such a person be anything but?
Today, for International Day of the Girl, we’re asked to think about human trafficking of women and girls, the oppression of rights and a great deal of suffering. None of it is easy to consider. It is easier to believe that it doesn’t really occur, or that it’s not really that bad or that there is nothing we can do to change it if it does. If we can do one thing to honor International Day of the Girl, it should be to challenge this cynicism. It should be to allow ourselves to believe in the sincerity of these struggles and those are fighting against them.
I we would be amazed by the difference that could be made by simply opening our minds. Just believing that struggles of others exist and that they are not the fault of those struggling. If we can give this day the benefit of the doubt, perhaps we can learn to apply that to all areas our lives. Maybe we can recognize the struggles of others as an opportunity to make the world better, not an affront to our own comfort. Maybe then, after we’re able to wrap out minds around it, we’ll start moving toward becoming a world about which we can say sincerely, rather than cynically, that this kind of suffering and inequality doesn’t exist. We’re just not there yet.
I answered a question incorrectly. Actually, it’s happened twice now. I’ve been interviewed on two different radio stations about my book, Swedish Lessons, and in both instances I was asked the same question: “Why didn’t you just leave?”
It’s a question I anticipated, as the full answer is the theme of the entire book. In the moment, during these interviews, however, I tiptoed around the weight of the question, instead listing some of the practical and logistical reasons that why, when things started really going off the rails during my time living in Sweden, I stuck it out, even as the situation got worse and worse. Those things are true, but they shouldn’t have been my answer.
Let’s talk about fear, shall we? I want to talk about fear because I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being afraid, and I’m tired of watching other women and girls be intimidated. We have a culture so laced with intimidation norms that we are often cornered by fear without even fully realizing it.
It happens every day on scales large and small. It’s the small scale ones, I think, that are the most powerful. When women are obviously and broadly discriminated against, we have strength in numbers. We can fight against it. It’s not so easy on smaller, more nuanced scale. For example, we learned this week that a majority of men resent it when their wives are more successful than they are. While the study is a large, glaring piece of evidence of emotional discrimination, how do you think that resentment manifests itself inside a marriage? I imagine it’s subtle, the way husbands express their displeasure with their wives’ success. I imagine each wife feels sorry for her husband and gradually backs off of her upward movement in the interest of her marriage.
It never once occurred to me that I wouldn’t have a professional career. When women I know drop out of the workforce, whether it’s to have children or for other reasons, I’m always surprised. Not because I don’t think everyone should have that choice and do what’s best for their families, but because it’s something that I have never considered an option for myself; not as a little girl, not while investing decades and thousands of dollars in my education, and not now, when I’m married and of so-called “child-bearing age.” Never even thought about it.
Especially now, when female legislators are at a 20-year low in Michigan, and some of those women have been banned from the House floor for speaking out on women’s issues, now is not the time to let this go.