In the 1960s, a group of the first American female astronaut trainees, later dubbed the Mercury 13, went through extensive tests and though they were equally qualified and outperformed men on several levels, were ultimately excluded from joining the NASA space program.
Nearly 60 years later, on Oct. 18, 2019, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch completed the 221st spacewalk in support of the International Space Station’s maintenance and assembly, and marked the first all-female spacewalk in history.
In 1917, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing her state of Montana. As the sole woman in Congress, she pushed for legislation to protect children’s and women’s rights, and introduced a bill that later became the 19th Amendment, which secured women the right to vote nationwide in 1920.
Now, 100 years later, more women have been elected to Congress than ever before, with women filling 134 of the 535 Congressional seats. This includes Sarah McBride, who is the first transgender senator. The U.S. even elected its first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, who is also the first Black and Asian American person to serve as Vice President of the U.S.
As we embark on Women’s History Month 2021, it’s easy to feel inspired by how far women have come. Headlines celebrating the accomplishments of women’s firsts have filled our newsfeeds more than ever before. Fields typically dominated by men—though notably still dominated by men—are also employing women at a rate that makes the glass ceiling feel… destructible.
Women in Sports
- In 2016, Brehanna Daniels became the first Black woman member of the pit crew in NASCAR.
- Simone Biles earned her spot in history as the first gymnast to win 25 Championship medals in 2019 and now has two moves named after her.
- ESPN, in response to the rise in WNBA ratings, featured 13 additional games in the 2020 season, bringing a total of 37 broadcasts.
- After head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected from a game, Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs assistant coach) became the first woman to serve as head coach of an NBA team, in December 2020.
- Sarah Thomas became the NFL’s first full-time female official in 2015 and the first woman to referee the Super Bowl in 2021.
Women in STEM
- Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020, which was the first time a science Nobel was awarded to two women. Charpentier and Doudna received the Nobel for their work on the technology of genome editing, and are only the sixth and seventh women to receive this particular prize.
Women in Business
- In 2020, Jane Fraser was appointed as CEO of Citibank, marking the first time a Wall Street Bank was led by a woman.
- As of 2021, the U.S. has a record number of women-led Fortune 500 companies, with 41 women serving as CEO, compared to 33 in 2019 and 24 in 2018.
Women in Politics
- Scotland passed a bill in November 2020 that made period products free for all women.
- Two studies show women leaders, including those in charge of countries and states, led the strongest COVID-19 plans and generated better outcomes during times of crisis.
A list like that, well, it should make our predecessors proud. However, even with these significant achievements and strides toward inclusivity for women across industries, our work is far from over. Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in late 2020 shows women still earn just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, and found no progress made since 2018.
One of the most publicized examples is the National Women’s Soccer League and the players’ fight for equal pay. The U.S. women’s team has been far more successful on the international stage than the men’s team. In 2019, the women won their fourth World Cup, whereas the men’s best finish came in 1930 when the team placed third. The men didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Despite outperforming their male counterparts, the minimum league salary for a player in the National Women’s Soccer League was $16,538 in 2019, as compared with $70,250, which was the minimum salary for a Major League Soccer player in 2019. Yet, after taking their case to court, the judge dismissed the women’s claim of unequal pay in May 2020.
It makes you question, if world-class athletes can’t secure equal pay for equal work, what does that mean for the rest of us?
The numbers don’t look great.
Over the past 12 months, American women lost a net of more than 5 million jobs, and of these women, the pandemic has disproportionately affected women of color. Even further, the 2020 Women in the Workplace report conducted by LeanIn and McKinsey & Co. reveals more than one in four women may downshift or leave their careers as a result of the pandemic. Some economists fear the repercussions of this pandemic could widen the gender wage gap by 5 percentage points—a loss our generation cannot afford, and not solely because millions of us are under- or unemployed.
According to new data, the U.S.’ trajectory toward women’s equality has stalled, and based on the current pace, we are about 151 years away from reaching true equality for women in the U.S. The U.S. ranks 53 out of 153 countries, and is trending 52 years slower on gender equality than the global average. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the numerous milestones women in America have surpassed in just the past five years, and there is data to help explain why.
Several studies by Oriane Georgeac and Aneeta Rattan found that seeing progress for women’s representation in top leadership often leaves both women and men believing that women have greater access to equal opportunities, despite the actual statistics showing otherwise. And when people overgeneralize the progress of women’s equality, the general population is less concerned or feels less compelled to act against the inequalities women face daily.
The good news? In Spring 2020, Pew Research Center surveyed 3,143 U.S. adults, and a majority (57%) of adults say the U.S. hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men. The better news? A majority of those who say the country still has work to do believe equality will be achieved in the future.
Pushing a boulder up a mountain will always feel heavier the closer you get to the top. As we climb, let us continue to engage others to help us shoulder the load. Let us continue to reshape how society regards womxn, and let us celebrate our achievements every step of the way. Because whether you’re a first in your own field, or simply negotiating your salary for the first time, remember that even baby steps will take you in the right direction.