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New generation inherits women’s equality fight

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I was walking into my gym, pumped for a post-holiday workout, when I noticed a girl strolling by me. She looked to be in her early teens and was wearing a T-shirt with a direct challenge printed in large boldface on front:

“Treat Girls Like Boys.”

Or something close to that. I might not have the exact wording correct, but the intent was clear.

Though I didn’t know the girl, I felt a surge of pride and optimism that she was comfortable emphatically proclaiming a sentiment that generations of women have struggled for — and one that her cohort would undoubtedly come that much closer to achieving.

But then I paused and started contemplating the idea of treating girls “like” boys more closely, and I couldn’t help feeling somewhat chagrined.

Nearly a century after we got the vote, women still feel it necessary to state the obvious, that we should be treated as equals in all respects.

Granted, the young woman in the T-shirt and her contemporaries are growing up in a world that looks very different for women than the one in which I entered.

Women are now more likely to have a college degree than men and have made significant gains in the business realm, from entrepreneurial enterprises to corporations worth billions of dollars. There are more women in positions of authority in politics, media, academia, science and other traditionally male-dominated fields than ever before; women like Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, and Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley molecular biologist who developed a significant advancement in gene manipulation.

There are lots of other examples of women increasingly flexing their muscles and challenging the status quo. Take the Women’s World Cup Final last summer, won by the United States, which garnered the biggest television audience of any soccer match in history. The Pentagon, perhaps the most patriarchal organization of all, recently made history by announcing that combat jobs would henceforth be open to women.

Previously verboten topics, such as breastfeeding and menopause, are now front and center in cultural dialogues and are even seen as fodder for artistic expression. Consider Sandra Tsing Loh’s “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” which closes its run at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on Sunday. I didn’t get a chance to see the play, but Loh’s talk at the Newport Beach Public Library last year had me falling out of my chair laughing, proving once and for all that hot flashes are an under-tapped comedic gold mine.

Yet battles remain in the pursuit of parity. Topping the list for many women’s rights advocates is the elusive quest to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Also on the agenda — closing the pay gap between men and women and making workplaces overall more amenable to the concerns of female employees.

Woman still comprise just 20% of Congress, and just over one-third of the federal judiciary. There are just six women governors. Less than 5% of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women. Only one woman has won an Oscar for best director.

Doudna, the gene-splicing biologist, has won recognition for her achievements, but she recently told a magazine interviewer that the ongoing discrimination against women in science “bothers me deeply.”

“We are in a world where women are still vastly underrated,” said Tamara Austin, director of Women and Gender Initiatives at UC Irvine.

As we hand the reins to a new generation of girls, who have arguably grown up with a greater sense of their own worth, it will be critical for them to understand that respect won’t simply be handed to them.

“It’s not enough to tell our kids ‘You can be whatever you want to be,’” Austin said. “As barriers come up, and they will, we need to attack them piece by piece. We have to figure out how we help women find their own empowerment.”

Both genders in our society too often become “stuck in these assigned beliefs about how women and men are supposed to act,” she said.

For women, this pigeonholing is less overt compared to the days when they were denied the vote because female brains were deemed incapable of making informed decisions.

Yet, intentional or not, predisposed biases still slip out, whether it’s a question of who changes a baby’s diaper, gets called on in class or is fit to lead a large organization.

And despite an abundance of powerful female role models, young women remain vulnerable to what might be called the “Kardashian Effect,” a media-enabled stereotyping of women as vacuous and materialistic.

As the younger generation inherits the struggle for equality, self-doubt must also be conquered. Indeed, Austin finds that today’s young women, despite knowing full well what they’re capable of, often still find it difficult to assert themselves as confidently as their male counterparts, and sometimes don’t appreciate that the progress accomplished so far has only come about because someone fought for it.

“Most women accept whatever offer is on the table,” she said. “My challenge to them is, will they take the initiative and take that power?”

I’m putting my hopes on the girl in the T-shirt and millions of others like her as they inherit the work in progress that is the quest for gender equality.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.


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