We've heard ad nauseum for months that women1 will decide this election, and both Republicans and Democrats are trying hard to court their votes. And yet the most memorable episodes in recent weeks relating to women have been Senate candidate Richard Mourdock (R) describing pregnancies from rape as "something God intended", Rep. Joe Walsh (R) stating that "modern technology and science" have eliminated threats to pregnant women's health, and Rep. Todd Akin (R) -- who sits on the House Science Committee! -- positing that the female body can terminate pregnancies from "legitimate rape".
Despite what the debased and disgraceful dialogue of this election season would have us believe, gender issues go far beyond rape, abortion, and reproductive rights. Although there's a tendency to think we're set because women now outnumber men in the workforce and in the ranks of college graduates, proclaiming "The End of Men" remains hyperbolic.
We live in a society where women earn less than men even in the same field, where they are shut out or opt out of leadership roles in the workplace, where they are considered unprofessional if they do not paint their faces and wear health-ruining shoes, where the normal and routine biological process of menstruation is treated as taboo, where the custom is to take their respective husband's last name at marriage, and where pointing out these incongruities is considered radical (the word "feminism" having somehow taken on negative connotations).2
Don't get me wrong, I know plenty of women who enjoy wearing makeup and love wearing a glamorous pair of heels, and that's OK -- we are all hard-wired to appreciate aesthetics and admire beauty. But we certainly can't claim to be the most enlightened, egalitarian society if the standards we set regarding gender roles are so ridiculous.
Childcare may be the most common explanation given for why women can't be as professionally dedicated as men. Is there a different way to do things? Scandinavian countries, for example, have a much higher workforce participation rate by women. Consider Sweden, where the male role in childcare and the importance of women in the workplace is implicitly understood -- Swedish fathers receive extensive paternal leave. This has been a contributing factor allowing 72% of Swedish women to work part-time or full-time.
There is dearth of high-profile American women leaders as well. The Fortune 500 has only 20 CEOs, or 4%. Only 16% of elected officials in Congress are women. The United States has never had a female president, and Hillary Clinton's 2008 run was accompanied by some ridiculous commentary and criticism. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved on with this as a non-issue, as Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Germany's Angela Merkel show. Merkel, Europe's de facto leader, ranks in the top five or so most powerful people on the world. While I don't follow German politics closely, I marvel at her on-paper background, which would sadly be uncommon here: a multilingual physical chemist3 with no powerful/dynastic family ties to politics.4
So instead of hearing the campaigns' empty pandering to women this fall, I hope we can hear our leaders talk about policy shifts and the need to evolve our cultural attitudes. Social views change extremely slowly, but government can help by funding options for more affordable childcare (so that working women can stay on the job) and offering other economic incentives. Elected officials and business leaders can set an example by appointing more qualified women to high-ranking positions. Universities need to do more to attract women toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and companies in the information economy (where today's higher-paying jobs are) need to recruit more women. If we do this, we can benefit women, create a more balanced society, and make sure our best and brightest -- regardless of gender -- can shine.
1. I've noticed that on every political talk show and in every newspaper column, "women" are described, analyzed, and projected as a monolithic group of voters. As for being the decisive segment of the electorate of this election, well, the whole being 50% of the population makes that a rather obvious and facile insight.
2. Once, in conversation with one of my closest friends -- a smart, independent, and accomplished professional woman -- she was describing to me her wariness about a new roommate who would be moving in. To my surprise, what got my friend's guard up is that this new girl seemed like a "feminist".
3. Elected officials with a scientific background are rare in the U.S., a great shame at a time when scientifically illiterate politicians are advocating wrong and dangerous policies.
4. America's highest-ranking female politician was Nancy Pelosi when she served as House Speaker; she came from a family of elected officials. America's most respected female leader today, Secretary of State Clinton, is a great and distinguished public servant, but there's no question her high profile owes a lot to husband Bill having been president.