By Parker Molloy
Illustrations by Tara Jacoby
History is littered with unsung female heroes. The likes of which are often overshadowed by their male counterparts in classrooms and encyclopedias. International Women’s Day makes for the perfect opportunity to not only reflect on some of the larger contributions women have made to society and the obstacles they’ve overcome in years past but to give a boost to women making waves in the present day. Yes, it’s important to look back at the work of women like Marie Curie, Nellie Bly, Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, and Alice Paul, who all overcame challenges in their quest to make history — but there are things we can each do to ensure that the powerful women of today get their due credit. It is up to men, non-binary individuals, and other women to help that credo and forge more positive visibility for women everywhere.
Starting with the obvious, one of the ways you can help build positive visibility of women is to make a point of supporting their work. Whether that means picking up the latest book by Roxane Gay, taking a trip to the movie theater to see the new Greta Gerwig film, or simply letting a female colleague know that you appreciate her contributions at the office, you can help make the world a better place just by being conscious of the way gender dynamics play out in life. For example, if a movie starring a man tanks at the box office, that doesn’t mean doom for male-centric movies across the board; with women, that sort of added pressure is a constant. Even when women are successful, they’re often held back in other ways — like when “Lady Bird” was nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes, but Gerwig, its driving creative force, was snubbed in the best director category. But visibility goes beyond simply celebrating achievements, though, and requires us to examine why gender disparities exist — even in response to tragedy.
In 2015, Salamishah Tillet wrote a New York Times Magazine article about the difference in how we think about men and women, even within progressive movements. She points to the fact that in contrast to how people memorialized the deaths of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd were largely forgotten. The circumstances of the four deaths — all four were black, unarmed, and died at the hands of the police — were similar, but it was just the men who received prominent city murals and plaques to their memories. Tillet’s point tied into an early anecdote in the piece about black girls in Chicago who had negative interactions with the police only to be disbelieved because they were girls, not boys. The difference in visibility and attention to injustice had a trickle-down effect on the rest of society. To correct that, Tillet highlights the need for campaigns within the larger Black Lives Matter movement focused specifically on black women affected by police violence — #SayHerName.
But you need not look to tragic headlines and Twitter movements to witness a lack of visibility. It follows women everywhere they go. If you’re one of the millions of Americans working a 9-to-5 office job, think about the last meeting you had. Who dominated the discussion? Whose ideas were given value? Who was interrupted, and who did the interrupting? A 2012 Brigham Young University/Princeton University study looked at how men and women interact in group settings such as legislative committees, school boards, and corporate governing boards. What they found was that the average woman spoke less than 75% as much as their male counterparts in these settings. Not only are women speaking less than men, but when they do, they’re more likely to be interrupted. A 2014 George Washington University study found that men were 33% more likely to interrupt women than they are to interrupt other men. Now, there’s nothing to suggest that men are, as a group, doing any of this on purpose or with any malice. Even so, it’s important to identify these norms as you see them in your life, and actively try undo them, and there’s a really easy place to start.
Juliet Eilperin, writing for the Washington Post, explained the concept of “amplification” in the Obama White House. When he took office, men outnumbered women in the Obama administration by a two to one margin. The women who were able to work their way into the president’s inner circle found the ideas they shared during meetings ignored or, worse, the credit for them stolen. In response to this, they developed a system they called “amplification.” Here’s how Eilperin describes it: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” Over time, these women found that their ideas were being heard more often (and attributed correctly), and they even began getting called on more often as a result. The concept of amplification is so simple that it can be worked into our own lives with little effort, paying off in a big way.
As you go about trying to help forge positive visibility of women, think about this and other small but meaningful ways you can give a boost to the women around you. It could be as simple as leaving positive reviews of a book written by a woman that you really enjoyed, or it could be in the decision to “pass the mic” to women and amplify their points of view if and when it’s offered to you. Consider using social media to share the stories and voices of women doing cool things. Change doesn’t need to be a series of grand gestures; in fact, lasting positive change starts with the small, snowballing into something much bigger.
Parker Molloy is a writer whose work — centering on media, culture, and politics — has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy. She lives in Chicago, IL, with her wife, dog, cat, and two rabbits.
In honor of International Women's Day, we are sharing the perspectives of six different women who have written about the five tenets of IWD's #PressforProgress initiative. As part of this project, Bonobos will be donating $5,000 to a charity of the writer's choice. In this case, we'll be donating to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal aid organization that server low-income or people of color who are transgender, intersex and/or gender non-conforming.