Tags: progress | for | women

Little Progress Made for Women

Thursday, 17 Jul 2008 09:34 AM

By Susan Estrich

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"Click," we used to call it, that moment when you realized that something was very wrong and, even more important, that it didn't have to be that way.

It was the feminist moment when you understood that genitals have nothing to do, or shouldn't, with being a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief — or a professor or president — that these are things that women can do just as well, that the reason there is only one slot for a woman and it's already taken is not because the clients prefer men (even if they do), but because the firm is indulging a preference that it should be ignoring, because the clients themselves are discriminating, because this is the way it was, not the way it needs to be, or will be.

My years in law school, my years in politics, my early years in academia were full of click moments. Sorry, but the Justice doesn't hire women. Click. Sorry, but there aren't any women partners. Click. This club is for men only. Click.

I started keeping lists and keeping track of the lists other people kept — lists of the number of women columnists and commentators and talk-show hosts, lists of the number of women partners and presidents, lists of the number of women on boards and panels. I'd write columns screaming bloody murder. I lost friends and influenced people. I thought we could make change happen.

The other day I saw a list of panelists at an important conference.

All men. All white men. Did anyone protest? Did anyone even notice?

It happens all the time. Four men here and three men there. Three new board members and they're all men. A new chair and he's a man. A new CEO and he's a man. The members of the panel were x and y and z and q, and no one even points out what they had in common: four white guys. Was there no woman qualified to be on that panel, I think to myself. And then I wonder:

Am I the only one still thinking that? Does anyone even notice anymore? What happened to the clicks? Have we gotten so used to living without them that we have come to take for granted the exclusion we once would have protested?

I was asked to give a speech recently for a women's group that I spoke to about eight years ago. "What would you like?" I asked their leaders, in the conference call we often have before such events. What you did eight years ago would be good, they said to me.

What I did eight years ago was chapter and verse on how underrepresented women were in the ranks of power in every business, profession and institution; on how few women were running Fortune 500 companies; on how we had stalled in our march to take over boardrooms and how we had the power to restart the revolution, break out of the holding pattern, if we used our voices and our money and our power to act. Eight years later I pulled the same numbers, and they were almost exactly the same. Or worse.

According to the latest figures from Catalyst, which does various counts every year in the hopes that exposing the numbers of women in leadership positions will expand them, the number of Fortune 500 corporate officer positions held by women has actually decreased from 2002 to 2007.

The percentage of board seats seems to have topped out at 14.8 percent; three years ago it was 14.7 percent. This is not progress. This year, 97.5 percent of the CEOs are men; for my speech eight years ago, as I recall, it was just over 98 percent.

Too bad I threw away the old draft. Among top earners, 93.3 percent are men; when I first started following the numbers, it was just over 95 percent. Excuse me while I yawn.

I understand that not every woman aspires to run a company or make partner or run the world. But power matters, too, not only for the women seeking it, but for the rest of us who work for them or are affected, directly and indirectly, by the decisions they make.

I understand that there are more important things in life than having a show or a column or a fancy title. But it matters whose voice gets heard and whose doesn't.

It matters who has a megaphone and who has the power to hire and fire and make the rules we all live by.

What stuns me is not how little has changed, but how few people even seem to notice anymore. What about those clicks? It's time for a revolution — a noisy one.

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