In a world where men continue to dominate positions of cultural, economic, and political leadership in America and across the globe, gender equality can sometimes feel light years away. And while individuals and organizations are working towards a future where women will no longer have to fight for a seat at the table, it's important to remember our foremothers who set the foundation for today's activism.
Even when there was no path to follow back then, they blazed a trail and paved the way for our efforts today. We've got a long way to go, but if these women can help shape America for the better, then there's no reason why we can't make a positive dent in history, too.
As the first woman aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Amelia Earhart challenged the traditional stereotypes of her time. She went on to receive the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for her extraordinary accomplishment, after moving on to break many more records and document her experiences in fascinating books. Sadly, her life was cut short when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 while attempting to fly around the globe. To this day, the San Francisco Chronicle states that the mystery of her disappearance still captivates people everywhere.
Sitting down when and where you are not supposed to may seem like just a simple act of defiance, but CNN states that it was enough to be a pivotal catalyst in America's civil rights movement. In 1955, Rosa Parks made history when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man — a custom that was expected in the time of segregated buses — and was slapped with a civil disobedience charge. Parks came to be known as "the mother of the freedom movement" and continued her activism throughout her life, playing a major role in the Montgomery bus boycott and serving as a symbol of the historic movement.
We all know the story of the first man on the moon, but what many don't know is that it was a woman who put him there. Margaret Hamilton was a 24-year-old mathematics graduate who worked in a lab despite living at a time when women were discouraged from going into highly technical work. Despite this, she eventually led a team credited for developing the software behind Apollo and Skylab — pioneering one of the most groundbreaking and epic accomplishments in human history.
Best known for her stark contributions to the Lewis and Clark expeditions in the American West, Sacagawea has since become a symbol for women's independence. A woman from the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, she traveled thousands of miles, crossing North Dakota all the way to the Pacific Ocean. On the way, she established cultural contracts with Native Americans. An article on Thought Co claims that no other Native American woman has more statues in her honor. Not only is her portrait on the new dollar coin, but monuments of her can be seen in public schools, lakes, and parks.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Hot on the heels of her graduation from Cornell University, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasted no time and decided to get her law degrees from both Harvard and Columbia law schools. She then went on to become a professor at some of the most esteemed law schools in America, but she was even more instrumental at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she helped establish the Women's Rights Project. In 1980, Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court by then President Bill Clinton. During her tenure, she was known to be incredibly outspoken and not afraid to express opinion when needed, earning her a well-deserved place in Special Counsel's feature on female trailblazers in the legal profession. To this day, Justice Ginsburg continues to use her voice to mold the course of America's history.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."