At a recent retreat for the Division of Student Affairs, I attended an interesting session about Debora Spar’s book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. This session piqued my interest because the topic of gender equality has been close to my heart since my undergraduate work at St. Thomas. During my time as an undergrad and in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I took many courses on feminism and the portrayal of women in the media. But since I graduated from the U of M six years ago, I’ll admit that I haven’t given the topic as much thought.
In her book, Spar examines how women are still living in a man’s world, even 50 years after the Equal Pay Act. The book discusses how far women have come, and how much further we need to go to achieve true equality.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, within each racial/ethnic group, women earned the majority of degrees at all levels in 2009-10 and it’s projected that by 2013, 57 percent of all undergraduates will be women. While more women are going to college and getting degrees, there is still a wage gap. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) says the pay gap hasn’t budged in a decade. In 2012, as in 2002, among full-time workers, women were paid 77 percent of what men were paid. Women face a pay gap in almost every occupation, the pay gap grows with age and it exists whether or not a woman has children. The AAUW found that college-educated women earn 5 percent less the first year out of school than their male peers. Ten years later, even if they keep working on par with those men, the women earn 12 percent less.
After attending the session and doing some research of my own, I was left questioning how things have changed for female undergraduates in the 10 years since I earned my degree. The answer: not much has changed. Women still face unrealistic pressures to “have it all” and look beautiful while doing it. The feminist movement was meant to bring together women (and men) to work toward providing equal opportunities. Somehow, in the years since the movement began in the 1970s, this message has been twisted to mean that women need to try to do everything. We need to be beautiful and thin, have a successful career and be perfect mothers. In reality, something is always sacrificed when you try to have it all.
As a mother of two young children, I know a woman can have a job and be a mom, but life is a little more hectic. The feminist movement showed us that women can work after they have children, but that doesn’t mean that they have to. The feminist movement gave women choices. Somehow, today that choice has become more of a competition, with working mothers and stay-at-home moms against each other. But instead of competing about whose job is more important, we need to realize that each job is significant.
Clearly, there is more work to be done to achieve equality, but much of the change will not occur unless there is a shift in our society’s mentality. The quest for perfection is unrealistic and, quite frankly, unattainable. Ultimately, I think the message for today’s female students is that feminism gave us more choices and opportunities, and what we decide to do with those opportunities is up to us as individuals.
We need to feel empowered that we can choose what we want to do with our lives, and come together – as men and women – to create a better future for all of us.