Apodaca: Gender equality to the forefront

In keeping with the season, I should acknowledge all that I have to be thankful for. I'm grateful for my family and friends, my dog, and UCLA's defeat of USC last weekend. What a wonderful world.

On a broader scale, there's something else for which I give thanks, and that's the renewed attention paid in the last few months to the issue of women's equality. That gratitude is tempered by the knowledge that, despite the many strides women have made toward achieving equal status with men, we remain maddeningly far from where we need to be.

Still, we're talking about it, and that's a good thing.

The recent discussion has been sparked in part by a controversial Atlantic Monthly article titled, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," by Princeton professor and former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. In the piece, Slaughter acknowledges that even the well-educated, high-powered women in her rarified Ivy League circles still struggle mightily to raise children while continuing to pursue their professional goals.

Then, of course, there was the much-mocked "binders full of women" line from Mitt Romney. Though the reaction centered largely on the awkward phrasing, the comment also revealed — probably unintentionally — the more disturbing point that no women were obvious candidates for important posts when Romney was governor of Massachusetts.

Nonetheless, the fact that both presidential contenders at least gave lip service to the needs of women was modestly encouraging.

Many of us who were alive in the 1960s and 1970s thought we'd have this all figured out by now. And there's certainly no denying that we've come a long way.

Back in the early 1990s, I wrote a few stories about the only female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. Today, there are 18 Fortune 500 CEOs who are women; after Jan. 1 there will be a record 21. Among them will be the first-ever female top executives among the nation's largest defense contractors, long a bastion of male hegemony.

There are also now 76 women in the House of Representatives, out of 435, and 17 female senators, compared with 83 men. There are more women in leadership positions in the military. A few years ago, the Oscar for best film directing went to a woman for the first time, and the New York Times now has a female executive editor, the first woman to top that venerable newspaper's masthead.

Back when I was starting my career in journalism, the door was open to women — to a point. There was always the nagging implication that I'd have to work harder to prove myself, that my accomplishments would be less readily acknowledged, and that there would only be so many women allowed to rise in the ranks.

That undercurrent of bias sometimes had the unfortunate effect of setting woman against woman, talons unsheathed in a Darwinian fight to make it up an ever-narrowing mountain ledge. Sorry sisters, but that's how it was.

Even so, that was nothing compared to the sneering condescension of some men. And I couldn't help noticing that these attitudes grew worse after I became a mother. Once, during an interview for a new assignment, one editor seemed concerned about whether I could handle the workload.

"This isn't the kind of job where you can just leave in the middle of the day to go to your kid's school," he said.

That comment still rankles. Would he have made the same remark to a man with kids? Somehow, I doubt it.

The truth was that I had actually become a better worker after having kids. I was more focused and efficient, and motherhood gave me a depth of perspective that carried over into my job.

Now I feel encouraged that the girl-on-girl fight for survival and the attitudes of men are moving in the right direction.

More importantly, we appear to be raising a generation of kids for which gender equality is more of a given.

Certainly machismo is still rampant, particularly in male-bonding institutions such as fraternities and sports. But I notice that my sons and their friends are far more aware and noticeably less tolerant of old gender stereotypes, and aren't bothered by competition from ambitious young women. At their schools, girls hold many — if not most — of the leadership positions.

My fervent hope is that this young generation will significantly push forward the evolution of the female of the species. My guess is that it will happen not because the girls elbow their way into the boy's club, but as a result of their own initiative and creativity.

Increasingly, we'll see women start their own businesses, and out of this budding entrepreneurship will come tomorrow's leaders, innovators, policy makers and culture shapers. Women will become fully ensconced in the halls of power.

Then, and only then, will the places where we work, learn and live be fully equal. And it is then that ideas and policies that make sense for women — whether single, childless, mothers or grandmothers — will become the unquestioned norm.

And the best thing about it will be that everyone will benefit. The question will no longer be, "Can women have it all?" or even "Can anyone have it all?"

It will be, "How can we make it better for everyone?" That's the type of question a woman would ask.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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