Behind Every Woman

Don’t worry—Melissa Mark- Viverito isn’t really in charge. The first Latina Speaker of the City Council has a “shadow Speaker,” her amiable second in command, Councilman Brad Lander. 

The demeaning term first appeared in an otherwise flattering New York Times profile. Anonymous sources used it to describe their collaboration, which has since been repeated elsewhere as fact. 

A well regarded ally and deputy, Lander has fervently denied he’s secretly in charge, and condemned the epithet. Yet a toxic narrative persists, implying that the Speaker is weak, and a white man is running the show. 

Female leadership remains a fraught matter, because the climb to get there is so perilous. And the fall can be even steeper. The firing of Jill Abramson at the Times set social media ablaze, because of the unceremonious way in which the first female executive editor appeared to be shoved off a cliff. Abramson’s supposed “management issues” smacked of a double standard from a news organization that has historically given wide latitude to men (see: Rosenthal, Abe). 

Just as the parents of black boys instruct their sons to defer to the police for their own protection, the parents of girls brace them for the subtle sexism of lowered expectations. It’s something that never goes away— and yes, all women have to deal with it. Even women at the top. 

Despite what can be an obvious and pervasive experience, women constantly have to prove their case to critics who charge that men also get fired, undermined and criticized at work. But it’s far from a fair fight. 

A study published in the journal of Global Business and Organizational Excellence looked at gender discrimination in hiring, based on the sex of the recruiter. Identical résumés, scrambled for gender, showed that 70 percent of male recruiters favor a male candidate for a successful company. It also found that “male recruiters prefer male candidates in times of success not because they evaluate men more favorably, but because they evaluate women less favorably.” 

The problem extends to the wage gap. Pay inequity is often dismissed as a composite of factors having little to do with overt sexism, and more with time spent out of the workforce. But this doesn’t explain why women just starting out make less than men. In its annual survey of graduating seniors, The Harvard Crimson revealed that a plurality of women entering the highest paying fields will make less than their male classmates. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics bears out this finding across industries. 

Gender inequality, and the struggle to prove it exists, doesn’t just come with a personal cost. The entire economy suffers. Studies repeatedly show that companies with more diverse management actually outperform those driven by all-male decision-making. A 2012 Booz & Co. report estimates that fully engaging women in the economy could increase U.S. GDP by as much as 8 percent. 

And then there’s the social cost. 

A few years ago I was invited by a former colleague to attend a reception for his law firm. I came with a friend who was clerking for a federal judge at the time. Dressed in dark suits, we blended into the crowd except for our skirts. We soon understood our place when not one but two gentlemen over six feet tall crouched to compliment us on planning such a successful event. The first time it happened, we chalked it up to mistaken identity. But the second time, there could be no confusion: “You’re women, you know how to send out invitations,” my friend mocked. 

That’s when I realized that despite all our education, hard work and professional success, to some men we would always be out of place. No, not all men exhibit sexist behavior, but the history of inequality is woven into institutions, infrastructure and even “polite” conversation. Acknowledging its extent isn’t just about right-sizing the economy but about doing right by half the population. 

Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.