Women’s equality not just ‘firsts’

Women’s equality not just ‘firsts’
© Getty Images

Widely celebrated as the most female and most diverse in history, the 116th U.S. Congress has a record 127 women in all. Much has been made of the many “firsts” among the 40 rambunctious freshwomen — from the first Muslim and Native American congresswomen to the youngest, age 29. And in a repeat “first,” California Democrat Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi says she's open to stock trading ban for Congress Manchin: Biden spending plan talks would start 'from scratch' Reps. Massie, Grijalva test positive for COVID-19 MORE won reelection as speaker of the House — a dozen years after becoming the first woman to hold that post.

Despite the media appetite for “firsts,” I prefer “seconds,” thank you. Better yet, getting to 10 or 20, until the numbers are so routine that we stop touting exceptions and focus on achieving gender equality, particularly in leadership positions. It’s 2019 and, sadly, we still have a long way to go, not only in politics but in other professions as well. After all, less than one-fourth of current members of Congress are women, most of them Democrats in the House. One state has never elected a woman to either the House or Senate — come on, Vermont.


As a women’s college graduate in the early 1970s, I naively thought the burgeoning women’s movement meant progress to the top would be surer and faster. The pipeline filled as American women moved ahead of men in education — earning more diplomas from four-year colleges since 1982, more master’s degrees since 1987, and more PhDs since 2006. Many leading U.S. law and medical schools long have had roughly equal male-female enrollments, with the national number of women law students moving ahead of men in 2016 and medical students in 2017.

Globally, the United States falls behind some 70 nations that have had a female president or prime minister, many in Europe and Asia. In 2016, Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE, the first female nominee for president by a major American political party, ultimately lost the presidency. No female American vice presidents, either, despite nominations in 1984 by Democrats and 2008 by Republicans.

In business, General Motors, IBM, Anthem and Lockheed Martin are among 24 Fortune 500 companies with women CEOs. But that’s less than 5 percent of the 2018 total and a 25 percent drop from 2017. Still a big gap, too, at U.S. business schools, with women earning roughly one-third of MBAs.

In academia, women are far more likely to hold lower-ranked U.S. teaching positions than men but comprise less than one-third of full professors. Their pay is lower at all levels. Despite widespread attention to the first women to head Harvard and other Ivies, female college presidents in the U.S. have risen slowly to about 30 percent.

In law, there’s still a big gender leadership gap for aspiring female lawyers. At the top 200 law firms, women represent only 20 percent of equity partners. In Fortune 500 companies, only about one-fourth of general counsels are women. About one-third of law school deans and 27 percent of state and federal judges are women.

In medicine, about one-fifth of full professors at U.S. medical schools are women. In the practicing medical workforce, just over one-third of doctors are women — about 60 percent of pediatricians but just 5 percent of orthopedic surgeons.

In Hollywood, a recent shout-out for greater gender equality came from Golden Globes Supporting Actress winner Regina King. In her televised acceptance speech, she vowed to hire 50 percent women in her projects over the next two years and challenged others in the film industry and elsewhere to do the same. Currently, about 20 percent of professionals in the film industry’s top 250 grossing movies are women, up slightly in 2018. But the number of women directing top films declined from 11 to 8 percent. The Celluloid Ceiling study found female directors hired substantially more women than films directed by men — a trickle-down effect important to future gains in many fields.

The bottom line is that vigilance in tracking gender trends in everything from Congress to the  film industry is crucial. Despite the singular accomplishments of some, women overall still fall far behind in terms of leadership positions. Gains can be fleeting, and it’s easy to backslide. Utah Rep. Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) Love'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements Black Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections MORE, the only African-American Republican woman in Congress, just lost her November reelection bid.

In addition to celebrating “firsts,” let’s relentlessly focus the national conversation on faster progress in achieving parity in numbers and in pay for women at all levels, particularly in leadership posts. It’s about time.

Cristine Russell is a freelance science journalist and senior fellow with Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a Harvard Kennedy School adjunct lecturer in public policy. Follow her on Twitter @russellcris.