The state of the glass ceiling

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Today’s question: While the media have fixated on this year’s presidential race, more women hold political and government offices at all levels than ever before in American history. Where is the glass ceiling today? Click here to read Monday’s exchange.

Women don’t prefer inequality
Point: Katha Pollitt

The good news is, yes, more women hold political office in the U.S. today than ever before. The bad news is, that’s not saying much. Women make up about 16% of Congress, which is the world parliamentary average. There are just eight women state governors -- 16% again. There’s one woman -- down from a big-whoop high of two -- on the U.S. Supreme Court. Worldwide, the U.S. ranks 68th in the percentage of women in government, right in the middle. State legislatures do a little better: In 2006, 23% of state legislators were female. This dismal picture is masked by the high profile of a few stars who are “firsts” -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution blames the underrepresentation of women on (you guessed it) women. The authors argue that women who run do not experience sexism in fundraising or party support; the problem is supply. Women lack “ambition” for political office, have more family responsibilities than men of similar status (that is, are less likely to have a nonworking spouse who keeps the home fires burning and will stand up at the podium smiling gamely while you confess your infidelities) and do not have the insanely hyper-inflated egos characteristic of men who go into politics.


Well, maybe. But I’m skeptical. It’s the fashion now to attribute women’s lack of success in any field to lack of interest, or courage, or self-esteem -- if not their very genes. And sure enough, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus concludes her May 27 column on the Brookings study by extending it to explain the dearth of women columnists. Women are just too modest to put forward their opinions! Well, sure, some are, but has the Post called you yet, Amanda? Heck, the Washington Post Co. owns Slate, which is full of brainy opinionated women. And there is always moi. I just don’t believe that women’s preferences explain why the Post can only find two women to write opinion columns for them -- and 19 men.

Back to women in politics. The fact that 67 countries do better than the U.S. suggests to me than something else is going on besides women being shrinking violets. I would say women’s low representation in politics is part of the stalled and stymied situation of women generally, the lack of a vigorous grass-roots feminist movement to push potential women candidates forward as agents of change. People are always saying that at the present rate it will take centuries for American women to reach parity, but that’s not how history works. American women doubled their numbers in Congress overnight in 1992, the “Year of the Woman,” when the disgraceful treatment of Anita Hill brought on a kind of national feminist “aha!” moment. It could happen again. Maybe women would be more likely to run if they thought their rights depended on it. Which they do!

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation magazine. Her volume of personal essays, “Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories,” was published last fall by Random House.

Death-by-a-thousand-papercuts discrimination
Counterpoint: Amanda Marcotte

No, Katha, the Post hasn’t called me. Neither has the New York Times, even though I promised on my blog that I’d pose in my bedsheets with my computer while wearing a camisole, and that I’d also admit to be being secretly vulnerable and not a little sad if they would give me an 8,000 word profile à la Emily Gould from Gawker. Sure, asking for so much right off the bat seems a little pie in the sky, but it’s part of my life plan to be more demanding, which I concocted after reading the Brookings report on women not going as far because we lack ambition.

While I agree with you that the Brookings Institution did fail to address the discrimination women face when climbing up the ladder, I did find a lot of value in the report. The report is still blaming sexism for women’s failure to reach equity in leadership; it’s just the death-by-a-thousand-papercuts sexism of everyday life. Take, for example, the subtle realization that your husband might like you for being strong and ambitious, but only as long as you make a little less money or have a little less power than him; the social messages decrying ambition in women; the extra responsibilities to hold your family together; and the knowledge that your children are more empowered to give you guilty eyes if you skip some family meals while you’re out campaigning.

You suggested Monday, Katha, that Hillary Clinton losing in the primaries isn’t going to discourage other female politicians from running for president, especially now that she’s shown it can be done and because politicians have thick skins. I whole-heartedly agree but have to point out that thick skins are something you develop over time. Most people who have it start down the path early, taking their knocks during high-school competitions. Perhaps the Title IX generation will overcome many of the obstacles that prevent women from even starting down the path.

But even with expansive leadership training, if we don’t address systemic discrimination against women, we’re never going to see equality in leadership. How do I know? A shockingly high percentage of the women who are in leadership had that leadership training, encouragement and, most important, funding from Emily’s List, which might be the most efficient political action committee in the country. Without that group’s money and talents, we wouldn’t have but a fraction of the female leadership we currently enjoy. In other words, the glass ceiling is still there and so tough that it takes a team of the best in the business to create enough cracks for a few to slip through.


Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Her first book, “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment,” is published by Seal Press.

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