Are women empowered?

March 16, 2014

At a TED Conference on female empowerment in 2010, former First Lady, presidential nominee, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared a story she had heard. 

“This teenage girl’s father expected to force her into early marriage, but she had been to school and she received a cow, perhaps through the Heifer Project, to encourage her to stay in school. When her father demanded she drop out of school and get married, she said no. When he insisted, she insisted right back.

And finally she pulled out her trump card: ‘If I leave and get married, I’m taking my cow; that cow belongs to me.’ So guess what? She stayed in school, she was spared an early marriage, all because her father couldn’t bear to part with the cow.”

Women have made great strides in the last few decades. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there are 1.3 women for “every male graduate.” However, a culture of sexism still festers within our society. The CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that one in every five women have or will experience rape. This statistic leads to a pressing question: Are women empowered? We like to picture a shattered glass ceiling while Rosie the Riveter stands triumphantly over the crushed shards of sexism, but can we honestly say that we live in a post-sexist society?

Despite the fallbacks, women have made strides in major industries and facets of our society. In celebration of Women’s History Month, let us reflect on the ways some “chicks” have made a difference.

 

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Government

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.15 PMThe Declaration of Independence, a great leap in the American government, states “All men are created equal”…but what about the women? It goes without saying that women and government have not gone hand in hand throughout history. In fact, it was not until around 1920 that women in America even got the chance to voice their opinion on the government. Although the women’s suffrage movement shifted the course of American history, women were still not viewed as respectable candidates for government positions. This narrow point of view may not be as intense as it was eight decades ago, but the root of sexism still remains.

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Infographic by Brooke Samole

The numbers do not lie: Women make up a very small percentage of our nation’s government. According to the 2010 Rutgers study on Election Results and Women, women make up only 18 percent of Congress, with 78 women in the United States House of Representatives and only 20 women in the United States Senate. Those who do hold positions in the government face the challenge of gaining equality in the eyes of Americans, while those who strive for a government position must fight off the ridicule and underhanded backlash that their gender comes along with. It is a vicious cycle in itself, with battles being fought left and right for the sexist stigma to be extinguished once and for all. Nevertheless, many women have shown that with determination and strong will, they can run the government just as well as any man.

If a person were to search for empowered women in the government, he or she would have to look no further than to our own Supreme Court justices. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor are all prime examples of women who fought the harsh narrow-views of sexism and used the negativity to drive themselves to greatness. Ginsberg attended Harvard Law School during a time of hostility towards women entering that field. However, Ginsberg did not let that stop her. She earned a position on the law review at Harvard, only to then transfer to Columbia Law School and achieve the same title there. Her academic success enabled her to become the first female in history to gain this honorable title in two major universities. Sotomayor also achieved historical recognition by becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in the Supreme Court. After experiencing a culture shock of wealth at Princeton University, Sotomayor – who had grown up in a life filled with poverty – allowed her intellect to guide her to Yale University, and enabled her to arrive at her most recent destination: her very own chair in the Supreme Court.

Although the media and public still have the ability to undermine the efforts of females in the government, women of the past few decades have shown that intelligence, determination and a strong attitude can lead one from a life of prejudice to a life filled with pride and justice.

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Business

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Prejudice against gender roles has left its footprint in business history, but with the help of some remarkable women, this footprint is slowly but surely erasing itself. Some could claim that this prejudice stems from the history of patriarchal societies themselves, in which the male-dominant demographic is common. Others could argue that the prejudice developed as humans themselves evolved, inevitably building businesses during a time of oppression for females. Whatever the origin may be, the fact of the matter remains: Sexism within the workforce is finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Two elements are present in business-related sexism: the aspect of work-expectations and the objectification of women that follows. Women have been working since the beginning of time, yet up until industrialization in North America, this version of work consisted of cleaning and caring for the household and children. It was not until the spark of World War II that the flame of feminism ignited within business, as more and more women began to follow the footsteps of America’s propaganda beauty “Rosie the Riveter,” participating in labor-intensive jobs while the men went off to war. This shift brought doubts from men who believed that women were either unable to perform their tasks, or blamed women for essentially “stealing” the work opportunities from men.

Although the progression of time brought the progression of suffocating sexism to a diluted standpoint, the roots of it still remain etched in the fabric of our society: Men have been presented with this painted image in the past that women are meant for household labors, and for those who work in higher positions, they must fight off the narrow-minded views of their male colleagues.

The past few decades have proven to be a step toward an empowering future for females in business. Ginni Rometty sets the prime example for women who strive to break down barriers. Rometty became the first woman to run IBM in 2012, now holding the occupation of Chairwoman, President and CEO. According to CNN, Rometty is ranked as the top contender in Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” alongside PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman. Closer to home resides Cid Botanicals CEO and partner Andrea Cid, who runs the family-owned business alongside Roberto Cid Sr. and Roberto Cid Jr. The business provides the customer with availability of all-natural “stevia”-based products. Through her exposure to the world of business, Cid has experienced the nature of gender discrimination within the workplace.

“For me, the challenges are more subtle,” Cid said. “Finding a leadership style that I am comfortable with, and that is also accepted within a [male] corporate structure, has been my biggest challenge.”

Cid has not let the struggles of sexism hold her back from succeeding.

“The key (and this applies to men and women alike) is to modify your communication style depending on the audience, while still being true to yourself,” Cid said. “Learning how to lead different types of people is fundamental.”

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Journalism

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.53 PMBehind the Saturday-Night-Live-colored glasses that depict Cecily Strong as the sole anchor of Weekend Update, there exists limited female representation not only in media’s delivery, but also in its content, leaving an image of the world sometimes inconsistent with reality. Katie Couric set the record as the first female solo evening news anchor more than seven decades after the first television news broadcast, and Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff became the first female co-anchor news team in network broadcast this past year. Whether one can attribute these to the rapidity of recent progress or the belatedness of gender equality in the field of journalism is open to debate.

“The person who brought me on board for CNN was a woman, the local CNN bureau head is a woman, and my assignment editor is a woman,” said Mercedes Soler, an anchor and correspondent for CNN Español. “There is more space, more respect, more opportunity for women. However, I don’t see that to be the case in the general media in the open broadcast networks. I think there’s still a lot of room for women to grow and to be given the opportunities they deserve.”

Soler and five other women wrote “Dish and Tell,” in which they discuss how to prioritize their needs and promote female empowerment. Her segment of the book description reads, “We realized we’re not perfect, and we’re pretty sure we’re not alone. Besides, beauty – and being a ‘bombshell’ – is more about being courageous than curvaceous.”

According to a report by The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), female journalists throughout the world will more likely receive “soft” story assignments on subjects such as lifestyle and the arts, while men will more likely write about politics and the economy. The GMMP also finds that women are more likely than men to appear as the victims in news stories, and less likely to appear on world headlines. Females consist of only 21 percent of all people interviewed or about whom the stories are about.

“I think that women are supposed to cover the issues that no one wants to cover that aren’t major, because they’re women,” senior J’Lesa Wilson said. “I will refuse any assignment if it’s not something I really love.”

 

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Pop culture

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Illustration and photos by Meryl Kornfield

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.30 PMLove, pregnancy, relationships and traditional “women issues” all make up the basis of pop culture. Ranging from masterpieces dated back from Leonardo Da Vinci, to movies such as “The Wizard of Oz”, to the hard-edged female rock band, The Runaways, women have taken a huge role in the world’s most impressive pieces and groups. Without the female gender, men would have had trouble fabricating their works of art (and better yet, reproducing and passing down their genes).

After the restoration of King Charles II, women were finally given the privilege to pursue their passion as actresses and were allowed on stage in the early 1660s. In Shakespeare plays, young boys and men would play the roles of women because they met the “qualifications” to act. Nowadays, pop culture relies and depends on women. As for females, some male figures would frown upon a woman leaving the pot on the stove to dance in a studio or sculpt a figure. The evolution of a woman in pop culture has completely emerged into a reliance and a need. Even as recently as the mid-twentieth century, men would have been taken aback to come across a female producer, painter or performer.

Even though women have come an extremely long way in the world of arts, there has also been a negative portrayal that stuck with them. As seen in video games, music videos, paintings and movies, women continue to carry the ideal image of a “sex icon” on their backs. By wearing revealing clothing, acting promiscuously and being placed in very uncommon situations, a pedestrian’s way of seeing women is reflected throughout this media. Red lips, shorts skirts, large breasts, skinny waists and a flirtatious attitude add up to the typical woman envisioned even to this day in age. On the other hand, since these ideas have been thrown out, they have been improved. Women have left some of their promiscuity behind and movies, for example, tend to have no problem featuring a typical working woman who overcomes an issue, emerging with success.

The role women play in music, art, theater and fashion has become pivotal. Leaders in these industries include Miley Cyrus, Cindy Sherman, Kristin Chenoweth and Victoria Beckham. Still, as the stereotype of a Starbucks-drinking, “selfie”-taking, Jetta-driving “basic white girl” becomes more popular, women are defined by how they fit the picture or do not.

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Education

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.23 PMThe aura of the 1990s’ “Teen Talk Barbie,” confiding to her young owners that “Math class is tough,” has almost entirely dissipated as gender gaps in the pursuit of mathematics and science decrease and female enrollment in such courses continues to rise. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), females at the high school level actually studied precalculus and algebra II at higher rates than men during 2012, and calculus at the same rate.

“For the female students here, we have Women of Tomorrow and different things that already exist, but I think that personally, I just try to be a good example of what a woman should be,” said Dr. Allison Harley, Principal of Palmetto. “I am a little partial to my powerful girls.”

Studies by the NGCP depict similar results for the sciences, except in the fields of engineering, computer science and the physical sciences, but Miami-Dade County Public Schools has initiated programs to address this issue. A former teacher of the district created the “Geeky Girl” program to have professional women visit schools on Saturdays, opening up the program to any female who would like their support. Participants develop skills in mathematics and science that allow for greater critical thinking and multi-tasking.

“These professional women are role models for girls. It’s okay to be smart, it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to take engineering classes and higher level math classes and science classes,” said Dr. Larry Feldman, Vice-Chair of the Miami-Dade County School Board. “There’s such a whole fear of women learning and taking their place. When you look at Golda Meir and others, it’s a shame that our culture does not allow for equal learning and opportunity. Girls who have the skills, the critical thinking, and the capacity to do multiple things should develop it and not just make it a man’s world.”

Gender-specific classes have gained traction as a possible method to empower women educationally. Based on research from various institutes and educational forums, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has tested these waters to great success, exhibited in The Young Women’s Preparatory Academy.

“The state of Florida legislature has been watching us and sees that it’s very successful,” Dr. Feldman said. “The legislature is looking at making it part of a bill they’re putting forth. There are some charter schools that have modeled what we’ve done, and other schools from around the world.”

According to Dr. Feldman, the difference between a single gender school in America and in another country lies in that with American schools, all levels of young women can receive this resource, not just the top one percent of students.

As of 2013, the United Nations achieved its millennium development goal to achieve gender equality in primary education, but only two out of 130 countries have achieved this at all educational levels. The United Nations also finds that women in many countries still face discrimination in access to education and work, a trend seen even at the national college level with regard to attendance statistics.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the amount of women enrolled in graduate schools has increased by 62 percent while the amount of men has increased by 38 percent, suggesting that persistent wage gaps in the labor market cause women to finish their schooling at a greater rate.

“I’m lucky. Education has traditionally been seen as a more female occupation, so as a woman, I think you have a lot more opportunities to grow and advance,” Dr. Harley said. “[However,] there’s never been a female superintendent in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, so let’s keep that in mind. That is no reflection on Mr. Carvahlo because I think he is an amazing superintendent; however, there never has been a woman, so there is still some of that. We need to be more supportive and say ‘Hey, you can do it. Let’s come together and make this happen.’”

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Sports

title IX

Illustration by Meryl Kornfield

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.48 PMFor both present and past generations, “you throw like a girl” strikes with a negative connotation, leaving the person victimized by this comment ashamed of his or her athletic ability. Women face a number of life challenges, reducing their ability and willingness to achieve their full potential, especially in sports. Often thought to obtain little endurance, stamina or strength, women have shuffled to the sidelines wearing hot pink tutus in order to fit their gender roles until the late 1900s, leaving their assumed broom and mop behind.

In 1896, Susan B. Anthony said “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.” The last quarter of the twentieth century reflected an evolution that changed modern society and invited women with open arms to partake in sports. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX legislation, prohibiting discrimination due to gender in schools that receive federal funds through scholarships, funds and other forms of support for student athletes. What the boys have, the girls have. Bringing forth equality for men and women, Title IX has had a major impact on the count of women participating in athletics, no matter the age. As a result of Title IX, women have had a increase in athletic scholarships meaning higher education, which may not have been accessible beforehand.  Elaborating on lessons coming from Title IX of equality and opportunity, programs such as Sports Envoys encourage advancement in the rights of women in athletics. With this, female athletes benefit just as much as males in the sense that they gain strength not just physically, but also in leadership, responsibilities and self-esteem.

“If I did not play a sport, I do not think I would have the confidence I do now,” senior Kiersten Hileman said. “I would probably be super quiet and lack both courage and pride. I would also be super out of shape.”

By participating and achieving in sports, women continue to break down the walls of sexism and build up their sculpted athletic finesse.

A sport does not necessarily entail aggression and body contact, which some assume. Sports such as cheerleading do not obtain the rights and privileges to athletic trainers or the gym equipment because according to most, cheerleading is a “hobby for girls.”  According to ESPN, the intense tumbling, flipping, high jumps and endurance all pay off, concluding that cheerleading is, indeed, a sport. In addition, girls lacrosse has faced serious stereotypes as well. Because the girl players wear skirts and do not combatively knock each other to the ground as the boys lacrosse players do, this too falls under the social thought of girls’ lacrosse not being a “real” sport.

Seeing that women such as Allyson Felix, an American gold medalist, have the capability to sprint 100m in 10.89 seconds and Belgium’s Justine Henin who had been ranked number one tennis player in the world for a consecutive twelve months, women have just as much ability as men. Through the blood, sweat and tears, women push their way to the finish line and winners’ circle for self-satisfaction as opposed to rebelling against the men as seen in past centuries.

Emerging through the sexist walls, women have proven to shine (and in some cases, outshine men) on the field, track, pool or courts, thanks to both Title IX and acceptance from society.

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Science

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Illustration by Meryl Kornfield

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.36 PMWhen one thinks about science, he or she may conjure an image of a male scientist working on an experiment in his laboratory. This image comes from the idea that women do not work in laboratories or associate themselves with scientific fields such as biology, chemistry, physics and medicine. History associates women as the ones who take care of the children and run the household, all while the male acts as the breadwinner. As time progresses, there seems to be a trend for how women wish to go against this stereotype and become involved with the scientific community, making great contributions to society.

Some women who have made contributions to the scientific community include Florence Nightingale and Jane Goodall. Nightingale became known for her work as a nurse during the Crimean War in the 1850s. During the war, she had the responsibility of training the other nurses on duty to properly treat wounded Ottoman soldiers. She helped reduce the death rate of that war from 42 percent to two percent. As a result of this, Nightingale assisted in paving the way to the founding of the modern nursing profession. The first official nurses’ training program, the Nightingale School for Nurses, opened in 1860. This opened doors for women to enter the medical field.

Jane Goodall, on the other hand, provided evidence to prove similarities between humans and chimpanzees in the way they socialize and how they use survival tactics. Goodall performed this study for 45 years and because of her, we have a better understanding of how humans share similar characteristics with chimpanzees and perhaps have some kind of evidence toward the concept of evolution. In this study, she showed how women could involve themselves in scientific studies and proved the female homemakers stereotype wrong.

Due to the efforts of women such as Florence Nightingale and Jane Goodall, women today have more opportunities to become involved in the sciences. One modern woman taking advantage of the sciences is Caroline Lewis. She currently holds the position of Founder and Director of the Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities (CLEO) Institute.  CLEO’s main objective is to bring attention to climate change – what she considers the defining environmental issue of our time – and to encourage the public to engage in, make changes to, and support climate resilience efforts.

“My biggest impact is the passion in which I explain the science and the seriousness and the solutions that are related to climate change,” Lewis said. “I am most proud that I am making the science of climate change accessible and that I have the ability to bridge the gap between society and climate change.”

 

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Technology

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.59.59 PMIn the text-messaging world, people may use all kinds of acronyms to describe how they feel or what they are doing. For example, “LOL” means “laugh out loud” and “BRB” means “be right back.” One acronym that represents part of society that men mostly occupy is STEM, or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. Without technology, the other three fields would not be able to thrive and grow. STEM has been portrayed as an area that only men should pursue due to the limited opportunities for women. Despite this portrayal, women are now encouraged to pursue careers in technological fields.

Under the umbrella of technology lies the popular subject of computing and computer science. From 2004 to 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, male engineering graduates rose by 11 percent. During the same time period, the number of female engineering graduates fell by 5.2 percent. In order to increase the popularity of engineering, schools are overhauling their outreach programs. For example, at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Christine Valle, director of the Women in Engineering Program, uses software that uses real-world examples to teach the principles covered in required statics classes in hope of making technical material more appealing to female students.

Besides universities, some national programs have taken the initiative to promote technology to young females. One program, “Girls Who Code,” has taken this initiative. Girls Who Code is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire, educate and equip girls with the computer skills necessary to pursue twenty-first century opportunities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computing-related jobs. In order to fill those needs, Girls Who Code inspires young women to learn how to code and helps them grow to close the gender gap in technology. Girls Who Code has partnered with companies like AT&T, Twitter and eBay to help promote this mission.

“Girls Who Code is inspiring teenage girls with passion for technology at a time when just .3 percent of high school girls say they plan to major in computer science in college,” said Ms. Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. “Our programs are building a pipeline of female engineers, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. ”

Despite that the number of women in technological jobs is low, some women do hold positions of leadership in the technological world. For example, Rachel Haot currently holds the position of Chief Digital Officer in New York. As Chief Digital Officer, she has the responsibility of increasing the digital scope of New York in fields such as access, education, government, engagement and industry. Some of her responsibilities include finding ways to increase accessibility to the Internet, such as placing Wi-Fi in public parks and developing programs such as Digital Ready, a digital literacy curriculum for middle and high school students. Despite that Haot graduated NYU with a Bachelor of Arts in History, she pursued an interest in technology.

Just because a gender gap exists in the field of technology, does not mean that women cannot become part of the field and potentially become leaders in this industry.

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