I’d always thought of myself as a feminist, well-versed in women’s history. But I discovered my knowledge of it was more limited than I realized when I met Laura Liswood in 2015.
As secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, Liswood has convened elected female presidents and prime ministers for the United Nations for the past 20 years. Very intrigued, I asked her how many female presidents and prime ministers there had been throughout the world.
I could only count a few on one hand: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and pioneering women leaders who made headlines when I was a kid, such as Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. I guessed 15.
It turns out that as of 2015, there were more than 50 living women who had served or were currently serving as presidents or prime ministers throughout the world. Today, there are 70. Were other women and men as in the dark as me? I asked dozens of people — professionals, academics and leaders of women’s organizations — and quickly discovered I was not alone. Most people estimated there had been five or six female leaders.
How could there be such a gap between our thinking and reality?
While many factors are at play, there are three areas that have an undue influence on what we know and how we see the world: our schools, the news media and popular culture. Each has failed to tell the full story of women’s leadership throughout history and, even more alarmingly, the tremendous strides — and impact — that women leaders have made over the past century.
Schools fall short
Following a landmark 1971 study by Janice Law Trecker which revealed that school books dedicated more ink to women’s skirt lengths over time than to the suffrage movement, some initial progress was made.
A recent study by the National Women’s History Museum, however, found that state standards for social studies classes overwhelmingly emphasize women — by more than half (53%) — in their domestic roles, followed by voting rights and suffrage (20%)
To accelerate efforts toward more parity, organizations like UNESCO are holding book publishers accountable for publishing more books by women and including women. UNESCO has used social media to collect examples of textbooks from around the world that fail miserably at equally representing men and women.
Meanwhile, Teachers Righting History, a project started by Rosie Rios, the 43rd treasurer of the United States, uses a database of information collected by the US Department of Treasury to give teachers and students the ability to post images of historic women in their classrooms and use it as a teaching tool.
Sexism in news media
Education, however, cannot be entirely blamed for the fact that less than 1% of Americans know how many women currently serve in Congress or how many women are currently a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
The 2016 US presidential election put a spotlight on how sexism in the news media can shape coverage of female leaders. Case in point: the presidential forum where moderator Matt Lauer interrupted then-candidate Hillary Clinton, asked hard-hitting questions and rushed her answers, while he threw Donald Trump softball questions and failed to follow up on answers that warranted fact-checking.
With a record number of women running for office in 2018 — nearly 500 women have shown interest in running for Congress alone — it is critical that the media learn from its mistakes and take steps to improve its coverage. This means having more female journalists moderate debates, providing equal space for women’s voices in opinion sections and letting women host more of those unfortunately, but appropriately, titled “man”-on-the-street segments.
What movies and TV can do
Popular culture, especially movies and television, has a critical role to play in telling the full stories of women’s lives today and of those from history.
Two disheartening facts related to Sunday’s Academy Awards reveal the current state of how women are portrayed in pop culture: “The Shape of Water” is the first Oscar-winning film to have a female lead character since 2005’s “Million Dollar Baby”; and women accounted for just 18% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on last year’s top 250 grossing films, a number that is on par with how women fared in 1998 — 20 years ago.
But the Oscars also put a global spotlight on a solution. When Frances McDormand used her speech to call for the use of inclusion riders to ensure diversity on film sets, she reminded us all that talk is cheap; the best way to accelerate progress on achieving gender equality is to hold people and organizations accountable.
Demand it in legal contracts. Follow Norway’s lead by setting quotas that require companies to fill at least 40% of their board seats with women or risk dissolution. Make equal pay the law of the land like they did in Iceland. Ensure equal rights for women in the US Constitution by finally passing the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Women’s March, #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have breathed new life into the fight for gender equality. We must seize this moment and transform our classrooms, news media and popular culture to ensure that women’s history and women’s lives are portrayed, covered and presented in the same way as men. It’s time.