Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., decided last week to suspend her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. AP PHOTO / STEVEN SENNE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Why women are partly to blame for that thick glass ceiling

So here we go again, trying to figure out why no woman rose to the top of the Democratic presidential heap.

It’s been interesting listening to all the pundits, watching women wring their hands about how to explain our failure to our daughters.

If you believe a new United Nations report about the Gender Social Norms Index released last week, the glass ceiling isn’t just thick, it covers all aspects of women’s lives, including home, work, education and yes, politics.

According to the report by the United Nations Development Programme, nearly 90% of men and women worldwide are biased against women.

That glass ceiling, though, is just part of the blame, said Pedro Conceição, head of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office. This clearly is about bias and prejudice.

Sadly, the findings, which measure how social beliefs obstruct gender equality in areas like politics, work and education, aren’t surprising.

Diversity experts say the results reflect how women are socialized.

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“Women face a lot of pressure from childhood to conform to gender norms that center their ability to become potential wives and mothers to men,” said Ariella Rotramel, an assistant professor of gender studies at Connecticut College. “If girls are raised to imagine their primary value as becoming wives and mothers, they are not going to see themselves or others like themselves as capable in the areas that the norms index measures.”

Even in an area with increased representation such as education, Rotramel said challenges with girls experiencing sexual harassment and participating in classroom discussions or in particular fields persist.

Thus, she said, our conversation should not only be about how are women not supporting themselves and each other but also why are men continuing to hold these views as well.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

According to the index, about half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders. Over 40% feel that men make better business executives and have more right to a job when jobs are scarce. Even 28% think it is justified for a man to beat his wife.

I should note here that there has been much progress. For instance, more girls are in school than ever before, global literacy rates have improved, especially among youths, and there has been constant progress over the past two decades in the enactment of legislation to address violence against women. Today, more than three-quarters of countries have laws on domestic violence in place.

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In many ways, this new analysis explains a lot about why the women running for president didn’t bubble to the top of the heap and more specifically why enormous “power gaps” still exist between men and women.

For example, while men and women vote at similar rates, only 24% of parliamentary seats worldwide are held by women, and there are only 10 female heads of government out of a possible 193. Women in the labor market are paid less than men and are much less likely to be in senior positions: Less than 6% of CEOs in S&P 500 companies are women.

“The work that has been so effective in ensuring an end to gaps in health or education must now evolve to address something far more challenging: a deeply ingrained bias — among both men and women — against genuine equality,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP’s administrator. “Current policies, while well-intentioned, can only take us so far.”

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As familiar as all of this might sound, it’s still unsettling to know women continue to be their own worst enemy in politics, in work and in education.

Adrianne Fletcher, a professor of social work who specializes in diversity issues at Case Western Reserve, said that sadly, we are all steeped in the same stew regarding vestiges of the past.

Adrianne Fletcher is an assistant dean of diversity and inclusion in the social work school at Case Western Reserve University. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Our country was founded on bias toward women, on bias toward people of color, so these remnants of the past are still active in 2020,” Fletcher said.

She noted, for instance, that theorist D.W. Winnicott suggested that we have the internal world of representations and relationships, which become cemented during our formative years. This internal world reminds us that men and women play specific roles.

“If bias toward women or people of color was a part of that, these things become intractable, and just because a woman comes to a level of prominence on the political landscape doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily rise to the top, because these internal perspectives are quite entrenched,” Fletcher said. “It’s hard to loosen. That’s why we see women go only so far, or people of color only go so far. And women collude. We’re just as guilty.”

Just two years after women turned out in droves to elect a sweep of women to Congress, and several months after as many as six female candidates participated in the first few Democratic presidential debates, there are now no realistically viable female candidates left in the 2020 race for president.

With Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropping out last week, it’s all but certain a heterosexual, white male in his 70s will secure the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

Warren choked up, reflecting on the pinkie promise she made with little girls on the campaign trail.

“One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinkie promises. And all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years,” she said as she was ending her campaign. “That’s going to be hard.”

Fletcher said that while she isn’t sure little girls are anxious about this, rest assured women will continue to work to move the needle forward.

Will we ever see a female candidate go beyond securing the Democratic or perhaps even the Republican nomination?

“It’s hard to say,” Fletcher said.

“Derrick Bell, lawyer, professor and civil rights activist, years ago said that racism will always be with us,” she said. “I think it’s also safe to say that sexism will always be with us, too.”

Never have there been truer words spoken.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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