Women have made incredible progress—which leads some to say that we should focus on problems affecting both men and women. But don’t declare victory yet.
This past summer, a bunch of millennial women jumped aboard an Internet movement called Women Against Feminism. They posted photos of themselves along with captions such as “I don’t need feminism, seeing how I’m an ambitious, hardworking, confident person living in 21st century America. Why fight for rights I already have?” The idea behind many of these posts was that feminism’s work is finished, and the notion of “women’s issues” is outmoded and even possibly sexist.
There is some basis for that view. As of 2023, women earned 57 percent of four-year-college diplomas, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 51 percent of doctorates . We’re in a moment when a female CEO like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer hits the news for installing a nursery next to her office, while Republican congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers is photographed writing speeches as she balances her two-month-old daughter in her lap.
Their achievements show that we’ve broken down the barriers that prevented women from rising to the top, don’t they? So why don’t we focus instead on the huge, seemingly intractable problems, like climate change and economic inequality, that affect everyone, regardless of gender? Maybe women’s issues are no longer a separate and distinct category—maybe now they’re “everyone’s issues.”
To which I say: Not so fast. I’m 32. Though I have always identified as a feminist—unlike the women in that Internet meme—in my early twenties, I might have agreed that women’s issues didn’t exist anymore.
I never felt my ambitions were defined by my gender. I was blithely unconcerned about my access to abortion and contraception. I assumed they would always be available.
I didn’t think about things like maternity leave because a baby was not on my agenda. But as I matured, procreated, and was able to pay attention to the world outside my privileged bubble, I realized that despite the impressive progress that women have made in the past 50 years—as recently as the 1960s, we didn’t even have wide access to credit—many issues still rest primarily on women’s shoulders.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a searing speech to a law school audience in July, outlined the ways in which the current U.S. Supreme Court has set the women’s movement back on equal pay, medical leave, and access to abortion and contraception. The male majority on the bench, Ginsburg said, does not really accept “the ability of women to decide for themselves what their destiny will be.” That’s a succinct—and depressing—description of how women’s issues continue to be a separate matter.
The gender disparity in the Supreme Court’s decisions provides a stark example of how women’s needs are treated when women are not equally represented in politics and business: as special interests, not universal ones. The Supreme Court’s gender ratio—2 to 1—is rather sunny compared with the percentage of women in Congress and in the C-suite. Women make up just 18.2 percent of the House and 20 percent of the Senate. Only about 5 percent of Fortune 1,000 CEOs are women.
And if you’re a mom, forget about it. Super-achieving mothers like Marissa Mayer and Cathy McMorris Rodgers get a lot of press, but they are outliers, not averages. Women with children are seen as less desirable employees than men, with or without kids, and women who are child-free.
In a lab experiment undertaken by sociologists at Cornell in 2007, “evaluators rated mothers as less competent and committed to paid work than nonmothers, and consequently, discriminated against mothers when making hiring and salary decisions,” according to their report.
By contrast, fathers were seen as more committed to paid work than childless men and were offered better salaries. All told, childless women were six times as likely to be recommended for hire as mothers with similar résumés and were offered at least $10,000 more in salary.
Women have made up half of college graduates since 1980, so it’s not as if our educational attainment is a new thing. Why, then, hasn’t it translated into more representation in the upper tiers of business and government, where much of the country’s power resides?
In politics, part of the reason is a recruitment gap. “Women are less likely to be encouraged to run for office by family members, colleagues, and friends,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
In the business world, there has been a movement to enlist more women as board members, but that has not been a quick fix for sexism either. In Norway, the boards of public companies are required to be at least 40 percent female, but that forced representation at the top has not helped any women except the handful appointed to the boards (where they’re still the minority), according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The gender pay gap in Norway remains the same as it ever was; entry-level female business students still face discrimination, and researchers found that there was no significant change “in female representation in top positions.”
So what do we do? “There’s no one answer. There’s no three answers,” says Sallie Krawcheck, chair of the women’s networking group Ellevate and former president of global wealth and investment management at Bank of America.
Women begin their careers expecting to progress just as their male counterparts do, explains Deborah Gillis, president of Catalyst, a nonprofit committed to advancing women in business. “But from their first job, women’s experience in the workplace is different from men’s,” she says. “They don’t have access to the influential sponsors who could advocate on their behalf.”
You might think the lack of women in the Senate and the C-suite is, as Krawcheck puts it, just a “yuppie problem.” Who cares if a woman in finance doesn’t make it to the tippy top? With her six-figure salary, she’ll be fine. But over the course of her working life, the average American woman is paid $464,320 less than the average American man.
That will reverberate well into the future: We are paying less into Social Security and have less left over to save, so we will have less to retire on—particularly problematic since we live longer than men.
Even something like the growing gap between the 1 percent and the rest of us—income inequality—which, on its face, seems genderless, in fact, weighs on women disproportionately. As Maria Shriver put it in the 2014 edition of the Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, “More than 100 million of us live on or over the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it—and nearly 70 percent of this group are women and the children who depend on them.”
Women make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers, so again, an issue that seems purely genderless and economic—whether or not to raise the minimum wage—is actually a women’s issue, too.
Some women’s issues are easier to spot and always have been: access to abortion, contraception, and paid family leave. On contraception, there’s a feeling that for every few steps forward, there’s another step back.
Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center, points out that there has been some progress in contraceptive coverage since the Affordable Care Act was passed.
Eventually, all private healthcare plans will cover contraception without a copay. “Given that 99 percent of women use contraceptives at some point, this is an amazing advance,” Waxman says. But then the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision—which allowed a corporation’s religious affiliation to trump a woman’s access to certain forms of contraception—was a huge blow to women’s essential rights.
Another blow was the Supreme Court decision that struck down a Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. As Dahlia Lithwick put it in Slate, in the majority opinions in these cases, “there is scant attention paid to real women, their daily lives, or their interests, and great mountainous wads of attention paid elsewhere.” Many states—22 in 2013 alone—have also passed laws that restrict access to abortion. “One only has to open the newspaper any day of the week,” says Waxman, to find another antiabortion law passing in Texas or Alabama. If this is not a women’s issue, then where are all the outraged men? Look at any photo of a pro-choice protest, and you will observe a sea of female faces.
Paid maternity leave—a standard social benefit in every other developed country in the world—is a pipe dream in the U.S., at least on the federal level. Currently, we have a parental leave law called the Family and Medical Leave Act, known as the FMLA, which allows 12 weeks off for new parents who are full-time employees—but those 12 weeks are unpaid, and companies are exempt from the law if they have fewer than 50 employees. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act under discussion in Congress would give workers 12 weeks of paid leave when they have a child, but the website GovTrack has given it a zero percent chance of being enacted. There is some hope on the state level, though: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all have paid parental leave, and New York and Hawaii may soon follow suit.
The reason there has been positive movement on family leave is that workplace flexibility is the one women’s issue that really is becoming an “everyone issue.” That’s because millennial men are asking for career flexibility; they are demanding paternity leave, and they’re doing more housework and child care than previous generations of men did. “True change will come when everybody is asking for a three-month sabbatical for family issues or to work from a remote location because of x or y or z,” says Krawcheck.
While that’s a heartening development, it’s still a little maddening that young men had to care about work-life balance before the cultural shift could accelerate. Reading all these sorry statistics can make a woman feel completely impotent: We can bang our fists and protest and care about lots of things, but we need to get men on board before we can make anything happen.
Still, there is real change that you can incite—even if it’s incremental—by bolstering political candidates who you believe support women’s interests. The candidates you endorse don’t have to be women; if there’s a man who champions the things you believe in, especially on the local level, then making a donation, campaigning on his behalf, and getting out to vote can make a huge difference.
It’s tempting to look at all the progress we’ve made over the past several decades and coast on it. And it would be wonderful if we could all come together, regardless of gender, and champion issues of basic equality as good for everyone, not just women. “We have this view that if we make the progress, we keep the progress,” says Krawcheck. But that’s not true, as recent decisions about abortion and access to contraception have shown. We don’t want to backtrack, so to the women in the Women Against Feminism movement, I say: I’m glad you feel so empowered. Now, look outside your own experience and see what work still needs to be done.
Jessica Grose is a journalist at work on her second book, The Closest Marriage.
Iskra Banović is our seasoned Editor-in-Chief at BlueFashion. She has been steering the website’s content and editorial direction since 2013. With a rich background in fashion design, Iskra’s expertise spans across fashion, interior design, beauty, lifestyle, travel, and culture.