In April, Lisa Stone moderated a discussion with President Obama on how topics such as women, work, and money overlap and interplay. Stone is one of the founders of BlogHer. Audience members probed Obama on numerous subjects, ranging from small business loans to college interest rates. One question – and Obama’s response – really seemed to stand out.
Towards the end of the discussion, a mother of two young daughters stood up and kindly, yet directly, asked Obama, “How would you suggest I best empower my daughters to work hard, study hard, and get a good education if they know from the outset they are going to be payed less than their male counterparts for the same skill set, with the same background?” Although remarkably simple, this question demonstrates the real and day-to-day implications of gender pay inequality on families, mothers, and daughters.
There is no quick or easy answer to this question, so to an extent I sympathize with Obama and the position he was put in. However, I found his response disappointing. Rather than taking a moment to acknowledge the unfair task continually asked of this and other mothers- explaining to their daughters that they will never make as much as their male equivalents because they were born girls, not boys – Obama delved into an overused discussion on how the world isn’t an equitable place and change takes time. He encouraged mothers to “remind your daughters that things aren’t always perfectly fair” and to remember that when his grandmother was growing up, things were even worse. Obama concluded his response with an announcement to women and girls that the “world is wide open to you – you can remake this thing.”
I appreciate and recognize the magnitude of being told that the “world is mine” to use and change as I like and see fit. It is an incredible sentiment that remains a cornerstone of this country. However, we must acknowledge its limitations. Yes, women can and have taken an active role in improving gender equality in this country. As a result of our efforts, American women have many more opportunities than their female counterparts in other nations, and more rights and power than their mothers and grandmothers in previous decades. But, things are still not equal. Women in the United States still make 78 cents to every dollar made by men in the same positions. Only 4.6% of fortune 500 companies are headed by women. Less than 5% of top venture capital funds go to female founded companies.
Bearing the weight of making the world a more gender equitable place can’t continue to fall solely on female shoulders. We have “remade this thing” countless times. If we’re going to keep leaning in, the President and our government needs to lean in too.