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Women’s Equality Day and Why We Need to Do Better

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

As a communicator, I am acutely aware of making sure that ALL stories are told, not just the stories of the privileged.

When my oldest son was born at just 24 weeks gestation, we learned that he would have an only 50 percent chance of survival, and 50 percent chance of disability if he did survive. Yet if he had been born a Black female, his chance of survival would have been vastly higher. Black female preemies have nearly twice the survival rate of white males. Where else, in culture, society, or the workplace, do Black females have twice the likelihood of succeeding as white men who are born with the privileges of their race and gender?

Today marks the 99th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving (mostly white) women the ability to vote. “Women’s Equality Day” became a thing in 1973, thanks to Congresswoman “Battling Bella” Abzug (D-NY), a champion for women and one of the first in Congress to support gay rights. We also know, though, that many women of color were unable to vote until much later. Millions of women, especially in the south, faced voter suppression measures that also disenfranchised Black men. No mention or celebration of “Women’s Equality Day” is complete without acknowledging that the predominantly white suffrage movement did not embrace and include women of color. Native American women didn’t receive the right to vote in all states until 1957, and it wasn’t until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act enforced provisions against voter suppression. (Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court recently weakened the Voting Rights Act, it once again made it more difficult for Black women to vote in certain states.)

Here We Are, 99 Years Later

Think racism has been eradicated? Think again.

It starts in childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a study this week stating that racism has an adverse effect on children, including increased risks of heart disease, depression, lower birth weights, worsened sleep, and lower self-esteem. Ta-Nahesi Coates’ letter-book to his son, Between the World and Me, is an example of the kind of conversation Black parents have to have with their kids. Most white kids can wander the world unconcerned about being arrested, hurt, or even killed.

It continues into the workforce. Although African-American women are more likely to be in the labor force (71 percent) than “all females” (69 percent) and work more hours, they face a higher gender wage gap now than ever. White women make 76 percent of white men’s salaries, whereas Black women earn only 67 percent of what white men do, even after controlling for education, experience, and location. The inequality between Black women and white men in the labor force continues to rise, while the gap between white men and women is slowly narrowing.

And into leadership…Black women occupy only 2 percent of U.S. executive roles, 3.2 percent of Fortune 500 board seats, and 5.3 percent of managerial and professional positions. More than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have no women of color on their boards.

Companies that don’t walk their talks…Here’s a classic undermining phrase I have heard when companies discuss equity and inclusion or how to hire more women or people of color: “Well, of course we will always hire the most qualified person.” The underbelly implied in this microaggression is that equity & inclusion programs mean (1) women and minorities will be hired even though they are not qualified…and (2) the job market contains no qualified women and minorities. Of course this is not true. We have so far to go to achieve women’s equality in the workforce.

Facing the Effects of Racism and White Privilege

While Black and brown women continue to face overwhelming obstacles because of white privilege and racism, people continue to deny the fact that they must overcome far more to succeed. You only need to look to the racist attacks on Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Meghan Markle, Roxane Gay, or Ayanna Presley to see the intense racism Black women face daily.

Ginger Rogers said, “I do everything the man does, only backwards and in high heels!” It seems like Black women and girls must not only do everything backwards…but also land a double-twisting, double-somersault maneuver (ala #BlackGirlMagic superstar Simone Biles).

It never fails, whenever someone shares an article about Black women achieving a major milestone or doing something to improve the world, the haters come out of their corners. A few weeks ago Melinda Gates wrote on LinkedIn about Serena Williams teaming up with Mark Cuban to end the Black maternal mortality crisis (Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women). Soon the skeptics arrived, criticizing Serena for focusing on Black women (in spite of the extremely compelling statistics). Similar comments arise when African-American women become the first to command ships or medical associations, win Nobel prizes, or sit on Fortune 500 boards.

As Erika Jefferson, MBA, commented on LinkedIn, “If you have not been the first to accomplish something in a field dominated by white males, like science, engineering, or medicine, I don’t know how you could relate to understanding the gravity of what that means.”

I welcome the day when we do not have to talk about race or gender and we have no more milestones to reach…but we are so far from “Women’s Equality Day.”

Celebrating Success

Mathematician Katherine Johnson, ala "Hidden Figures"

Did you know that negative imagery of Black women appears twice as often in media and news as positive depictions? Yet in spite of that, Black women become entrepreneurs six times faster than the national average. It’s time to demand better representations of Black women in the news and popular culture. “The focus needs to be on the Black independent, educated, intelligent, strong queens that they are,” as Danyelle Johnson says in Capital News.

Back to the NICU

I suppose it’s easy for me to celebrate the fact that Black female preemies are nearly twice as likely to survive as white males, because my son did survive after an extremely difficult NICU stay. I’ve always found this statistical outcome to be a form of divine justice. It’s about time Black women got an edge in something and didn’t have to be Simone Biles to succeed. It’s preemie #Blackgirlmagic!

We can celebrate a real Women’s Equality Day when Black and brown women have a seat at the boardroom table, when multiracial work teams become the new normal, and when it’s not unusual for employees to report to Black female managers. Until that day, we must keep working.

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