On my way into work one morning, I heard a lyric from Dala’s “Good as Gold” that struck me as a provocative way of thinking about the challenges of making progress on the gender gap: “I won’t let the dust fall on my life.” I thought about where dust falls: on fixed surfaces, in the crevices we miss, over the places we never much get to. There’s something to the phrase “dust settles” that suggests complacency, the act of accepting less than we know we might deserve, aspire to, long for. And with that settling comes a set of blinders.
Recently my 9-year-old son said to me, with wide-eyed wonder, “Can you even believe we’ve never, ever had a female president?” Before I had a chance to respond, he continued: “That’s just so surprising!” His sheer incredulity was telling — a demoralizing reminder that I’ve got my own trusty set of blinders. What I hear both in my son’s disbelief and in Dala’s lyrics is also an implicit commitment to growth rather than eyes-averted settling.
If the gap between my son’s astonishment and my own isn’t enough to shift my vision, I needn’t look far to find further unsettling evidence: My childhood friend who has worked for 20-plus years in the U.S. Senate earns $76,000 to her male counterpart’s $116,000 in the same role; a veteran reporter’s comment about Hillary Rodham Clinton (“The story is never what she says, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it.”); a 2012 study that found female raters making hiring decisions “judge (the) mothers to be less likable than (the) fathers and childless women.” These are windows into the harsh, complex realities women face, both individually and collectively.
Consider the data at the core of the gender gap: the not-quite-77-cents to the male dollar American women earn; only 21 women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies; the disparities in the male/female contribution to the unpaid work of the home front. I can’t help but wonder where we’ve let dust settle. I mean that “we” both individually and collectively, personally and professionally, because the dust around this gap is both in our systems, policies and organizations and in our own minds, behaviors and choices.
In her controversial book “Lean In,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to stand up, stand out and lean in professionally. Many suggest that’s easy for her to say: Well-heeled women with nannies and sky-high incomes have freedoms few of the rest of us enjoy. Her tendency to lean into individual women rather than exerting similar systemic pressure may say something about her own blinders. Yet, if and when we dismiss Sandberg’s voice, perhaps we are also undermining the very conversations we must have to make progress on these issues. Of all the ways Sandberg might have invested the currency of her influence, she chose to make it personal. And gendered. Whether or not we share Sandberg’s angle, she has been tremendously successful at energizing a deeply relevant conversation.
Our part in advancing this conversation includes learning to talk across factions. This means expanding our search for allies and letting go of some of what we’ve previously held dear and engaging with people whose ideas aren’t simply echoes of our own. Serving a shared vision means having the capacity to hold steady when things get uncomfortable and the discipline to connect to our deeper purpose. We will have to move from benign interpretations of the stark, sluggish data to conflictual interpretations of those numbers. We will have to acknowledge the very real threats that come with gender equity and in turn all that our current reality serves.
Throughout, there will be losses. There always are. However, these losses will serve that greater good rather than self-preservation.
Author and historian Stephanie Coontz suggested in a recent lecture at Hollins University that to upend the policies and beliefs that have kept us stuck, rather than inadvertently replicating those struggles in the very design of new policies, we have one model to consider. She advocates developing policies with the working woman in mind, policies acknowledging that for us all to survive and thrive we must be supported in our ability to navigate the demands of work, home and community. This tri-focal vision serves the good of all: men who would like to be more engaged in fatherhood, communities that need co-ed volunteers and women who seek higher-echelon posts. Coontz’s proposition acknowledges that we tend to mirror current culture in creating future policies, a tendency that reiterates gender imbalance from one generation to the next. As Coontz said, “This model isn’t about reverse sexism but about reversing sexism.”
During that lecture, what I heard across the auditorium was that familiar rhetoric recognizing “how far we’ve come.” Yes, we have. I feel deep gratitude for those who’ve trampled down our path. At the same time, I wonder about the impact of that rhetoric on our tendency to settle into that backward vista rather than to find a way to continue to trample on. Finding that way forward will mean finding allies, designing experiments, working beyond our authority. If there’s any truth to the belief that dust is made up primarily of dead skin cells, then we’ve all got a lot of skin in this game.