Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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The struggle continues

Q: The number of women ambassadors to the U.S. has grown dramatically in recent years -- a phenomenon that some attribute to female U.S. Secretaries of State, particularly Hillary Clinton. How important are trailblazers to the sucess of others? And if they are important, why didn't an earlier generation of women leaders like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lead to a surge of women in positions of political power?

A funny thing happened on the way to women's liberation -- feminism, with its harsh overtones and sacrificial consequences, became a bad word for rising generations of young women.

Supermoms who clawed their way into the c-suites in the 1970s and 1980s were stunned to hear their daughters say in the 1990s and 2000s that they'd rather stay at home to raise their own kids.

A generation after Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman justice on the Supreme Court, women's share in law firm partnerships languishes at around 17 percent as women -- whose numbers are almost equal to men's in law school -- opt out of the grinding race to make partner. Women editors-in-chief are fewer than 20 percent at major publications, and women are only 23 percent of college presidents, although women comprise almost 60 percent of students in higher education.

Only 15 of 500 CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female, which is not surprising, considering that women hold only about 15 percent of board seats in those companies. Only 3.2 percent are women of color, which tells you something about the environment for women leaders of color as well.

The rising number of female ambassadors to the United States reflects the increased respect that women leaders receive around the world. Indeed, the U.S. lags behind many foreign nations when it comes to the numbers of women in legislatures and even women presidents.

This is not a misprint: The United States is tied with Turkmenistan in 71st place on an international list of the percentage of women in the national legislature -- 16.8 percent. (The U.S. House of Representatives was used as the equivalent of a national parliament.) Fifteen women currently serve as presidents and heads of state -- a goal that remains elusive in the United States.

The lag in women's achievement of high office in the United States has roots in the same social conditions that cause many young women to shy away from expressing anything resembling ardent feminism and even to eschew the notion of women's leadership entirely. Fighting for equality is hard work and often requires the sacrifice of personal comforts and family time. Discrimination remains prevalent, albeit more subtle than in the past.

While women role models can be inspirational trail blazers for rising generations, women leaders in public positions are also magnets for shameful personal attacks and outright slander. "Demonizing Hillary" was a popular sport for quite a long time, less prevalent now because other prominent political women are drawing more intense heat --- Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi being targets on opposite sides of the political fence.

Gender discrimination often rears its ugly head in deeply personal ways. I have been in meetings with other college presidents in which I reaped harsh criticism for disagreeing with male colleagues. One once went so far as to take me aside to tell me that I really should be more quiet and respectful. Another used that all-purpose put-down for women when he told me I seemed "aggressive." That's a euphemism for the "b" word.

On another board on which I sit, the men discussed having a board meeting at a certain golf club where women are not allowed on the premises, and when I gently asked, "And where will I go?" they looked at me, annoyed, and then muttered, "Oh, we forgot about that..."

Senator Harry Reid stepped into a hornet's nest when he made comments to a reporter about President Obama's skin color and accent, but we know that discriminatory viewpoints often find expression out of earshot of the subject; women suffer similarly prejudicial judgments behind our backs.

Fifty colleges for women continue to exist in the United States -- Trinity Washington University among them -- because women continue to face daunting odds in trying to achieve real equality throughout our society. We believe that young women, in particular, need strong role models of achievement in order to find the inspiration and practical guidance to move up the ladder of professional achievement.

Women's colleges also are places where women are able to have full and frank discussions of the obstacles to gender equality and full acceptance of women's leadership. Our graduates often come back to share their real-world experiences, always with encouragement for new generations to succeed them. We offer aspiring women leaders the opportunity to develop clear tactics to reach success in corporate and civic arenas.

Women's colleges continue today because of one clear fact: The women's revolution is far from over. Until the day arrives when thinking about a woman president of the United States is not an exceptional idea, our mission to inspire new women leaders remains relevant and urgent. Each generation of successful women leaders makes it possible for more to emerge in the next.

By Patricia McGuire  |  January 18, 2010; 12:02 AM ET  | Category:  women Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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