Although National Donut Day may be a very close second, International Women’s Day holds a special place in my heart. It’s a rare 24 hours when women are praised for their ambition and determination, and are empowered to reach even further in the coming year. Sadly, this praise is not as commonplace as it should be in the 21st century. Women around the world are banned from going to school, paid less for their work, period-shamed and generally considered less capable, all because of one chromosomal difference.
This utterly baffles me.
I remember the first time I experienced this diminishing of women firsthand. I’d just briefed a conference room of men on a marketing initiative I’d spearheaded that had exceeded our goals. After I was done, as if my ambition needed to be placated, the VP of the company patted me on the head as he gestured for me to take a seat. I was in my early 20s at the time, fresh out of college and hungry to affect change in the world. I stared in disbelief as everyone in the room smiled, refusing to acknowledge the power play I’d involuntarily been thrust into. Is the “real world” just a man’s world after all?
It may sound naïve of me to admit, but it wasn’t until then that I understood the insinuated and often unspoken gravity of gender inequality. As many of us falsely believed about racism in America, I thought these issues had long since passed. Like remnants of a nightmare that linger, but only through the last drop of your morning coffee. I grew up in the age of the Spice Girls (“girl power!”) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—it never occurred to me that I, a woman, could not achieve as much as or more than, say, one of my brothers, if I really wanted to. Over the years, I’ve realized this way of thinking wasn’t developed by accident. There are several people responsible for my empowered mindset and they might not be the people you’d expect.
Now, I’m the first to admit my upbringing is intertwined with privileges not all women are afforded. First, I was born in the United States, which tends to value girls’ education, and I had very engaged teachers who cared deeply about their students, even in the midst of a lower-income neighborhood in Los Angeles. My parents also worked their tails off to not only keep our family afloat, but thriving enough to move us to the suburbs of San Diego and their public schools that often produce Harvard graduates. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned of the many sleepless nights my parents laid worried, unsure of how they’d afford groceries and the mortgage in my early childhood. I think that is the biggest gift of all. In my mind, one of the most empowering things you can do for someone is to give them the space to be themselves without limitations. I developed courage as a young child, if not for the sole reason that besides the occasional stalky spider, I really had nothing to be afraid of.
Until perhaps age 10, whenever someone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d stand a little taller, both feet firmly rooted in the ground, and declare, “I’m going to be the first female president.” Seeing my dad’s grin from the corner of my eye was always my favorite part of this question. My parents, bless them, raised a young girl with loud opinions and big dreams, and celebrated her rather than redirect her down “more ladylike” paths. I wore boxers around the house because my older brother Josh wore boxers and I thought he was the coolest. I played baseball with the boys because Josh was a pitcher and my dad was his coach and I didn’t want to feel left out. But I also wore tutus in ballet class, could spend an entire afternoon with my Barbies and once dragged my mom to an NSYNC concert (which I still don’t think she’s forgiven me for).
Looking back, the fact that I was 22 before I experienced outright sexism in relation to my ambition is a miracle I am immensely grateful for. Of course, my parents deserve most of the credit for treating me the same as they did my brothers. However, your home life is only a small portion of your day, and there were so many others who helped me feel like I could be myself without judgment. The T-ball coach who ran me through the same drills at practice as the boys. My teachers who didn’t bat an eye when I’d wear head-to-toe pink one day and a baggy hand-me-down Ninja Turtle tee the next. The neighborhood kids who didn’t tell me girls can’t play street hockey. My first boyfriend who didn’t feel the need to compliment me for eating more than a salad. My Professional Association of Diving Instructors scuba instructor who let me borrow some of his gear rather than pay extra, knowing that things like ankle weights or a smaller tank would make it easier for me to learn to dive amongst a class of men who didn’t need any such gear modifications. My brothers who didn’t ask, “Is it that time of the month?” anytime I was angry.
These seem inconsequential on their own. But stringed along the timeline of my life, they matter. Because each action validated me and showed me I matter, unrelated to my gender.
Empowering women comes in many shapes and forms, and should be a collective effort. Imagine how different that afternoon in the conference room would have been if one of my co-workers had called out their superior on his sexist behavior. Or if companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods would offer more than pink color variations for products like boxing gloves that are typically seen as “masculine.” Just because you paint something pink and put it on a shelf doesn’t mean you’ve invited women to the table. It’s the equivalent of ESPN only airing Raiders games all season; you may enjoy football, but that’s only tailoring to a small fraction of fans. (PSA, not all women like pink.)
A large part of empowering women to thrive is creating a safe space for them to step out of the roles “femininity” prescribes us. Men and women alike have bought into the idea that women should be passive and agreeable, which causes many to shy away from being direct about their thoughts and feelings for fear of being less “likable.” It’s the first step in the shrinking process; women biting their tongues and being asked to smile while doing so. Yet who does this serve? Society should encourage women to be more than people-pleasers. And by society, that includes women, too. I’ve been told while on an entirely female staff that my constructive feedback for those I supervise was “too harsh.” I should have, apparently, sandwiched critiques between positive statements—which feels like an oxymoron and hinders someone from growing if you ask me. Women are strong as hell, and if we start to treat one another this way, I have a feeling we’ll rise to the occasion.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, more women are graduating from college than men, According to data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment dropped by 14.4% for men and 6% for women in spring 2021. Additionally, though the numbers are small (for now), women are making their way to the C-suite, Congress and more. So the next time you see a young girl playing T-ball, or an aspiring female NFL player, firefighter or mechanic, be one of her insignificant moments that matter. Tell her yes, she can. Empowered women spark empowering ideas and lift up others, both male and female, in the process. And those are the kind of humans we need.
This article was published in March 2019 and has been updated. Photo by @safwansarimin/Twenty20
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.