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Women's Equality Day: Where the issues stand now

ASU experts research and discuss a range of pressing concerns around women’s rights

Women's rights
August 25, 2016

Weeks ahead of Women’s Equality Day, President Barack Obama amplified the national conversation around gender rights with an essay in Glamour magazine that declared he “is what a feminist looks like.”

Women’s rights advocates praised the move as showing a willingness to acknowledge an issue that they say people in power often overlook.

Partisan politics aside, Arizona State University instructor Mako Ward said that “while feminism has historically been championed by advocates who tend to be liberal in their political beliefs, as a movement its core is about advocating for equal rights for all people, which is nonpartisan in scope.”

For more than 40 years, Women’s Equality Day has been observed on Aug. 26, calling attention to disparities in upward mobility, reproductive rights and political representation. ASU experts have researched and discussed a range of pressing concerns around women’s rights. Here are some of their perspectives:

Income and workplace inequality

Women have come a long way in the workplace. As Obama writes, since the 1960s “we’ve gone from a job market that basically confined women to a handful of often poorly paid positions to a moment when women not only make up roughly half the workforce but are leading in every sector.”

While it’s true that more women are occupying leadership positions, a recent study conducted by W. P. Carey associate professor Christine Shropshire found that only 5 percent of Fortune 1000 companies have female chief executives.

The report also found that female CEOs are far more likely to experience “shareholder activism” — being pressured and second-guessed by company shareholders — than men occupying the same leadership position.

Shropshire called the results “depressing” but noted that “awareness is a good first step.”

For women and gender studies professor Mary Margaret Fonow, the gender wage gap is the biggest hurdle. She said that women are heads of about half of all households and therefore have major financial responsibilities, so “it’s a particularly serious issue,” she said, noting that women are “still concentrated in too few occupations, and that contributes to the gender gap.”

The role of race and class

Academics generally agree that gender isn’t the only factor affecting the women’s equality movement.

“It’s very difficult to talk about women, in general, because race and class play such an important role in shaping women’s experiences,” Fonow said.

Things such as affordable housing and access to child care can greatly affect a woman’s personal and professional success, and those things are most often determined by race and class.

Fellow women and gender studies faculty member Ward said “any national agenda aimed toward women’s equality needs to incorporate issues relevant to women of color,” including social and economic experiences related to issues including “poverty, settler colonialism and immigrant rights.”

Women in sports

Gender inequalities in the sports arena are glaringly obvious. Ward — who teaches a course on race, gender and sport — said while 40 percent of athletes are female, they receive just 4 percent of sports media coverage.

And oftentimes that coverage is less about their performance and more about their appearance. At this year’s Rio Summer Olympics, participants in women’s beach volleyball were getting media attention because some had chosen to dress more conservatively in long sleeves and hijabs instead of bikinis.

“Even though we’ve seen major strides since Title IX … there is still all this talk about what women are wearing,” Ward said.

The objectification of female athletes is nothing new. Fonow said the women’s baseball league that developed during World War II required players to attend charm school so as not to appear too masculine on the field.

A real shame, since, as Fonow notes there is “a lot of research that shows women’s participation in sports” has many positive impacts, including “increased self-confidence, and [lessening] of early pregnancies, eating disorders and suicides.”

Moving forward

Something that stuck out to Ward in Obama’s essay was his “deep reflection on what it means to be an active father” and a strong male supporter of feminist ideals. That also means challenging people’s assumptions and attitudes of what it means to be a feminist.

“We need to keep changing the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, and penalizes working mothers,” the president wrote. “We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive and ambitious in the workplace — unless you’re a woman.”

Both Ward and Fonow agree that having more women in leadership and decision-making roles can only help the feminist movement.

“Women’s perspectives are needed if we’re going to solve” any of a host of world issues, Fonow said. “Any issue you can think of, you have to have a diversity of people at the table when you’re coming up with solutions.”

Another thing they agree on is the power of social media and globalization in the movement.

“Activists are more networked now than they’ve ever been,” said Fonow, while Ward pointed to the popular “girlboss” hashtag, which promotes women taking charge, though she cautions it can lean toward an individualized level of thinking when the feminist movement can only make real progress when women come together as a community to work for change.