We’ve come a long way, baby – but we have far to go

March 6, 2011


Lara Pingue is a Personal Finance producer for Reuters.com.  The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host an International Women’s Day follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011.

A coworker recently sent me a YouTube video of a 5-year-old girl declaring to the world her intention to get a job before she gets married. It’s a funny clip, filled with the kind of urgency and drama only a pre-teen girl can muster.  But something about it made me uneasy:  Isn’t getting a job before marriage a given? Since when is this decision worth broadcasting on the Internet?

It seemed fitting that this video would go viral in time for International Women’s Day, a time to look back on just how far we women have come.  Fifty years ago, would it surprise anyone if a little girl talked about landing a husband – not a job – right out of highschool or college?

I’m grateful times have changed for most of us, but we can’t be smug.  Yes, women are making impressive strides in the workplace. And yes, we’re juggling it all: marriage, kids, career and dazzling social lives. But a recent White House report on the state of women in America is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks the struggle is over.

Consider this: after all the fighting for gender equality, women are still earning 75 percent as much as their male counterparts in 2009, the White House report finds. And women’s career choices are partly to blame: we’re still working as secretaries, nurses, teachers and cashiers more than men, who are busy launching careers in science and technology and financial services – careers that pay serious cash.

And guess what else? When times get tough, women – not men — are more likely to bear the brunt of it.  In 2009, 28 percent of working women who were unmarried with children had incomes below the poverty level, compared to only six percent of male workers.

Women’s health is another cause for concern. While it’s true that women outlive men, the gap is narrowing. More alarming, women are more likely to suffer chronic conditions such as asthma, depression, arthritis and emphysema.

That’s not to say women don’t have plenty to be proud of.  We’re trumping men in education, outpacing them in high school education and outscoring them on reading assessments (though lagging in math scores). More women than men between the ages of 25 and 34 have a college degree, reversing the norm 40 years ago.

So where does this leave us? The short answer is we have our work cut out for us.  President Obama has already made it his mission to encourage women in “STEM” — science, technology, engineering and math.  But real progress is our own responsibility. Women encouraging other women to challenge themselves, to pursue the jobs they wanted when they were young, be it engineering, science and yes, even teaching.

It also means we need to take care of our health.  Something as simple as reducing obesity rates can add years to our lives and reduce the chances of life-threatening illnesses including diabetes and heart disease.

None of this will come easily. But the next 50 years of women’s progress should be marked by healthier, wealthier women who are taking control of their lives and their futures. With any luck, the 5-year-old YouTube sensation will make good on her promise.

To read the full Women in America report, click here.

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