On January 20th I listened spellbound to Amanda Gorman read her astonishingly beautiful poetry during the inauguration. Last week, I learned that two female geneticists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are the only two women who share a Nobel Prize in the history of the awards. Their prize for chemistry honors their development of a method for genome editing to treat genetic disorders such as sickle cell anemia. And almost every day I glimpse Dr. Jill Biden, dressed in blazer and skirt and looking every bit the schoolteacher that she is. The First Lady continues to do what she loves, teaching, and to be there for her husband, who she also loves.
Women demonstrate every day that, although they can and do carry out wife, mother, manager, and teacher roles, it is still an uphill battle. In the mid 1980’s a friend shared this observation of new teacher orientation week in Reston, Virginia. According to him, the men teachers all left at the end of the day empty handed, while the women all trudged to their cars loaded down with teaching materials. Typical. Women know they must work harder to compete in male dominated workplaces.
In the 1970’s, the time frame for my novel Bear Woman Rising, a female full-time professor at the University of Alaska applied for a mortgage. Her application was denied because she was a woman. However, the mortgage company suggested all she had to do was get a man to cosign and they would approve it. She felt insulted, mortified, and helpless. Thank goodness, when I applied for a mortgage to buy my first house in 1992, attitudes had changed, and I faced no such obstacles.
Gender bias continued well into the 1980’s. After my divorce, in 1987, I applied for a credit card. Although I was fully employed as a technical editor for the Department of Interior, I was turned down. To rub salt in my wound, my ex-husband, a teacher, told me he was offered a credit card without even applying. Hmmm. What was the difference here? Oh yes, gender.
During my 22-year career, I often observed a reluctant acceptance of women as equals in the workplace. By the late 1970’s, we had progressed from believing that women should not have positions of responsibility because, during our menstrual cycles, we were likely to behave irrationally. Still, the men I worked with struggled to accept that my technical editor position was professional. In honor of Secretary’s Day in 1980, we took our secretaries out to lunch. When I offered to chip in to pay the bill, the men said my lunch was included. And when I pointed out, “I’m an editor, not a secretary,” one of my puzzled male co-workers said, “What’s the difference?”
My daughter is the hardest working woman I know. While balancing her responsibilities of motherhood and career, she authored three books, served as a communications expert for several corporations, and earned her doctorate in business communication. Today she is a visiting professor at six International universities in Shanghai, China. Whenever I suggest she is working too hard, she tells me, “Mom, every woman I know works as hard as I do. We have to.” I wish that were not true. But I ‘m afraid it is.
Still, I hope that my granddaughter, a first-year, law school student, will not face quite the uphill battle her mother and I have. But, honestly, I do not see much evidence that her future career trajectory will be any easier. So, while I want her to persevere, I hope she takes time to make friends along the way with fellow working women who share her journey and understand her challenges. Friends—an invaluable resource.