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OPINION

2020 saw great strides for women, but it also exposed inequities we should fix in 2021

Women broke glass ceilings last year, from politics to sports. But we need to fix the cracks in the system that leave women and people of color behind.

Teresa Boyer
Opinion contributor

The year 2020 highlighted a paradox in the advancement of women’s leadership. Women made large cracks in the glass ceilings of bastions of male dominance.

The "first evers" in powerful aspects of our economy and culture include the first woman of color to be elected into our nation’s executive branch, the first woman of color general manager in Major League Baseball, the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Naval Academy brigade commander, the first two women to share the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and on Dec. 30, the first woman to serve as head coach of an NBA game.

Women fought hard for these achievements, as Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris noted in her acceptance speech, and Kim Ng acknowledged in the dogged, decades-long pursuit of this goal in her statement released by the Miami Marlins. And all of these accomplishments should be celebrated.

Yet 2020 also showed us that women, especially women of color, are bearing the brunt of the effects of the global pandemic and social unrest. Last year gave us a road map to improving gender equity in 2021. 

What a year of COVID laid bare

Hiding behind the accomplishments of 2020 are the inequities that continue to bubble under the surface: overrepresentation in jobs and industries that have lower pay, higher risk and less job security (particularly in this economy); pay gaps; workforce policies that have never adequately addressed the need for caregiving responsibilities among workers; biased perceptions of women’s leadership skills; and, despite perceptions of a recent narrowing in the gender gap on time spent doing care work at home, decisions in many households to have women’s jobs outside the home be the ones that suffer when a choice needs to be made. 

In 2020, we saw millions of women leave the paid labor force, thousands of women in nursing die from fighting COVID-19, and mothers stressed to the breaking point trying to feed their children and rebalance the many roles they had carefully structured in their pre-crisis lives.

These challenges are especially critical for women who hold identities that place them at the intersection of these issues, especially women of color. Bringing them to greater light now shows the shaky ground women’s advancements have been treading, and unless addressed soon, could set women back decades in the years to come.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, left, and San Antonio Spurs coach Becky Hammon.

In her acceptance speech, Harris gave some advice to our children: “Regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message — Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.”

This is the same advice I give my own two daughters, ages 7 and 10, as our collective eyes have been further opened to the possibilities of women’s leadership by those who have broken through those ceilings.

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Even so, there is a dissonance there if we don’t think our children aren’t also seeing the stress that women are under, the ways our families, governments and workplaces react, and the long-term career and life decisions being made. This crisis and the lessons of 2020 are shaping their generation as they forge their own paths forward, and they will remember.

Fix cracks that leave women behind

If we truly want hindsight to be 2020, we need to learn from the insights it provided to work toward change: 

►Listen to women, especially women who hold intersectional identities. Value the perspectives they bring to leadership. Talk about this value with your friends, colleagues and families — including children.

►If you are in a partnership caring for children, honestly assess the mental and physical loads you are carrying, talk about them with your partner and work toward an equitable balance. This honesty is required of each adult, regardless of gender. Let your children know how you share the work.

►Create policies and practices for our workplaces that not only acknowledge people have caregiving responsibilities outside of work — but also show we expect people across the gender spectrum to use them.

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►Provide good career information, including skills, pay, working conditions and security, throughout our education system so that children can make informed career and job choices instead of falling into gendered or other biased choices.

►Strengthen our systems that support our most human needs — like education and health care, whose cracks are so clearly on display in this crisis. Recognize and change them it so it doesn’t come down to one individual in each family to bear this burden for all of society, especially as we know our families are less and less composed of the "traditional" roles on which we based these systems.

As 2020 moves into the rear view, we can celebrate its cracks in the glass ceiling, but also resolve to fix the cracks in our systems that leave women and people of color behind. When our children look back, they will see the path to leadership for those who were "first -evers" in 2020 as more expected than extraordinary.

Teresa Boyer is founding director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women's Leadership at Villanova University. Follow her on Twitter: @drterriboyer