“I have no power.”
This was my response to a friend asking how I was the day after a momentous storm recently ravaged the Midwest knocking out power in my Chicago suburban neighborhood—including my home.
She seemed concerned: “Why, sure you do; your work is going well and you have a book coming out soon.”
I was referring to electricity; she was referencing the larger picture.
Her kind question—and empathic response—reminds me that the status of women in the political sphere, workplace and culture in this country can be framed as a tale of power—won, lost and yet to be attained.
Undoubtedly, the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as vice president on the Democratic presidential ticket is a win for all women, particularly for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) women. This choice signals women’s hard-won wider recognition, advancement in politics and society. It is a giant step closer to gender and racial fairness in representation.
A Black South Asian, Jamaican American woman is in line for the No. 2 position of power in the country. Harris joins a rare community of women political leaders in power—yet it is not a sure sign that the attainment of power is complete for women, or anywhere near equitable.
The Women’s Power Index charting the positions of women in government in 193 countries shows only 19 women are heads of state; just 14 countries have reached 50 percent women in national cabinet positions; and only four of the 193 countries have at least 50 percent women in the national legislature.
Political power is not a reality for millions of women in this country and globally, and the lack of economic power—and parity—is also out of reach.
While it is a win that the number of women in CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies has increased to a record-high 38, that is still only 7.6 percent. And only three of the women CEOs on that list are BIPOC.
(Interestingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Linda Rendle was the latest addition as chief executive of Clorox, the bleach a practical agent in the fight against the virus.)
The Women Presidents’ Organization in collaboration with American Express, recently released its annual list of 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies that collectively earned a combined $3.8 billion in revenue and employed more than 17,000 people. Representing industries across the country from healthcare, technology and consultancy to lifestyle, the companies are ranked according to a sales growth formula, combining percentage and absolute growth.
Yet beyond the boardroom and the president’s office, for most women in the U.S,. fiscal power in the form of pay equity and fairness remains an impossible dream.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these fault lines: A July McKinsey & Company report on COVID-19 and gender shows that “women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses.”
Data shows the gender wage gap is a foreboding reality for many.
The Center for American Progress reports that analyzing 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data shows “women of all races earned, on average, just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races.” While the specific gaps vary among Asian. White, Latina and Black women, for no woman is there $1 earned compared to $1 a man earns.
While that gap can be trivialized as pennies, over 40 years of lower earnings, the loss translates to $527,000 for white women, $942,000 for Black women and $1.1 million in losses for Latina women.
The concept of political, economic and personal power continues to be a confronting daily challenge for millions of American women. While there remains an abstract power shortage for many, the achievements of women at the top may serve as a sign of perhaps more power boosts in the future.
After 48 hours, power in the form of electricity was back in my home. In some weather-ravaged areas of Iowa, power is still not returned to the women, men and children coping with this disaster.
My own work-from-home life returned to normal with the flick of a switch—the refrigerator was humming, I could work on my laptop for hours without running in a mask to the local coffee shop to plug in an outlet. But the assurance of my own power in the work I do and am paid for as well, as the political choices I make, are far more complicated.
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