This week, Forbes magazine unveiled its annual list of billionaires, and it included a record 172 women, up 25 percent from last year’s 138. The unveiling coincides with some historical markers for women in this country and throughout the world.
Monday marked 101 years since women suffragists marched on Washington, demanding the right to vote. A year later, a century ago, representatives of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage were back in Washington addressing members of Congress in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee making their pitch for congressional action on a woman’s right to vote.
And on Saturday, International Women’s Daywill be commemorated worldwide. It’s an event inspired by the female garment workers’ strike in New York in 1857 and the broader fight for women’s equality in this country. Thousands celebrated the first Woman’s Day in New York on February 23, 1909, according to Alicia Williamson, a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh. The following year, the Second International Conference of Socialist Women had adopted it at their meeting in Copenhagen, with the first International Women’s Day celebrated March 19, 1911. By 1913, the date was set as March 8, which is when it is celebrated today.
There is a lot to celebrate about women’s progress, though there’s a lot to lament, too.
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The Forbes list provides one prism to look through, but not a very helpful one. Only 32 of the billionaire women were a big part of building their fortunes. The others inherited their billions. But at least a dozen – including Oprah, of course, and tech star Sheryl Sandberg, who heads Facebook – powered their way to the top on their own.
That’s progress of a sort, though it’s worth noting that women still struggle to make it to the top of most companies in this country. Women hold 16 percent of corporate board seats in the U.S., and they hold 14 percent of executive officer positions, according to Catalyst Research. In both 2009 and 2010, 12 percent of Fortune 500 companies had no women serving on their boards.
Last year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report gave the U.S. top marks for women’s educational attainment, and for providing economic opportunities for women. The report said, “The United States has fully closed its gender gap in education...” Women represent 51 percent of the nation’s PhDs and 51 percent of business school applicants. Nationally, women are 57 percent of all U.S. college students. However, they are still only 26 percent of full professors, 23 percent of university presidents and 14 percent of presidents at the doctoral degree-granting institutions.
Politically, the U.S. came in 60th of 136 countries in empowering women, though there have been small gains for women in representation in Congress, and in the labor force participation rate. But on both economic and political achievements for women, the U.S. is falling behind other high-income countries. The Nordic countries of Finland, Norway, and Sweden are on top with high rates of labor force participation among women, low pay gaps, and women more easily able to rise through the ranks to the top in business and politics.
Worldwide, women have made progress even in developing countries. A recent United Nations report noted that fewer women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth, primary school enrollment is approaching 90 percent, nearly one billion people have moved out of extreme poverty and more women are working and participating in political activities. Yet many experts say too many women remain left out of the upward changes. That’s a huge loss for the world economy. Consultants Booz & Company noted that if female employment rates matched those of men, GDP would increase by 5 percent in America and 9 percent in Japan by 2020. Their report said the impact would be even larger for developing countries, where most of the world’s women who lack adequate education and support reside.
That assessment gives Saturday’s International Women’s Day theme, “Equality for Women is Progress for All,” more resonance.
A celebration is in order to take note of how far women, in this country and around the world, have come since women – particularly those working in the garment industry and factories – mobilized to fight for economic, social and political equality more than a century ago. Their struggles – and those of the men joining with them – have brought results. But the work is not done. Progress for all awaits when that day comes.