If a tree falls on your house, you are shocked because you thought a tree would never fall on your house. Then comes a different kind of shock—the one that says, “Oh, of course, no wonder it fell—why didn’t I see that?” Then you make sure trees never fall on your house again.
Gutting Roe v. Wade is the tree that fell on our house. It was always going to fail—it only looked OK—so why did it fail? Root rot—U.S. history and culture is founded on discrimination against women. This is a reality too few young women grasp, and it’s essential for them to understand as they make decisions about education and the rest of their lives.
Realize that American women have always been paid less and worked harder and longer than men. They have received worse health care, education, opportunity, political representation, legal protection, and personal and sexual respect—since the Mayflower! Those are the rotten roots. In numbers, women are the majority and live longer, but in power, self-determination, or quality of life, they are a minority. It should be evident to all that the discrimination directed at smaller racial, ethnic and disabled groups will never end if discrimination against the most numerous “minority”—51 percent of the U.S. population—has not and can not.
A big reason why not is that children copy the pattern at home, repeating it, literally ad nauseam, into the next century. It’s embedded. Need proof? The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women the same rights men enjoy, first proposed in 1923, was adopted by Congress in 1972. It has yet to be ratified by the states and made law—50 years later! Just think, maybe it would have prevented the Supreme Court’s abortion, the one killing Roe. But the U.S. is up-to-date; there is also now cutting-edge discrimination, too. Research from the Santa Fe Institute has found that, in algorithmic tools, “men are widely associated with engineering, technology, power, religion, sports, war, and violence,” while women are associated with “sex, lifestyle, appearance, toxic language and profanities.” Men have designed sorting algorithms as modern instruments of subtle predation.
You may wonder, if more women are graduating from college—they earn more than 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—why aren’t women more equal? Wouldn’t that defuse male loss-aversion and change systems and the courts? Unfortunately, discrimination is not just public, it’s also private and personal in relationships where assuming traditional roles, often benefitting men, avoids difficult negotiations. Too many women who earn these degrees learned from their mothers that keeping up the pretense of the ideal Mayflower home is mandatory and therefore means leading a dual life. On the one hand, they are professional, slaying dragons with aplomb in their careers; on the other, at home, they are doing most of the caregiving, cooking and cleaning. Many men see that and think: Great, they’re not serious about that equality stuff. Plus, celebrity culture, sex-soaked advertising, bodice-ripper media, and super-male action movies convey that real women ought to focus on looking hot to prove they are unafraid to “be who they are.” Correctly stated, that means “what” they are: bait.
Given those realities, first, each woman needs to think carefully about her whole life. Do you want to relive your mother’s life? What are your expectations for yourself? Can you cope with independence? It takes courage and risk. Children? Think about the pros and cons, professionally, financially, emotionally, if, and when? It is optional, and so is the timing. Today, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities, 15 percent of adult Americans and rising live alone, and the marriage rate is falling—imagine the planning, money and trade-offs needed to work around all the social, legal, and cultural conditions. Do the planning, learn how U.S. social systems operate, and for whom. Let that knowledge work for you, not against you. There are many ways to give birth: a career making the world better, a break-through idea after years of work and research, or taking a big risk to save someone else. Physical birth isn’t the only way to deliver personal value.
Second, find a true purpose in life. Strength of purpose imbues remarkable resistance powers and clear thinking against temptation and adverse circumstances. To find your purpose, sign up for interest and aptitude tests to ensure that you pursue something you genuinely believe in and are passionate about. Stick with it.
Third, reduce your dependency. Security is seductive, but the trade-offs are pricey; better to self-insure. Save money from day one, so you can always fund an exit plan. It’s incredible how luxurious it feels to freely pick how to live life, unconstrained. Remember, a bird never tests a branch before lighting on it, worried that it may break, because it knows it has wings. Grow wings.
Fourth, say yes to college. But know that higher education is not there to support you. As you enter college, even high school, understand that institutions will not ensure equal treatment for you. That is do-it-yourself. National educational systems were set up in the 1800s to serve the values and social hierarchy of the time. Elevating the status of women, racial minorities or people with disabilities did not enter into the equation; on the contrary, it is why colleges for each of those demographic groups became necessary. If colleges treated women equally, Title IX reporting would be honest and transparent; women’s sports would be as numerous and well-funded as men’s. More female teachers would have tenure, and all colleges would have built-in child, health and reproductive care. Admissions officers would not go easier on men in the admissions process. For example, Henry Broaddus, the former dean of admissions at the College of William and Mary, once said that admitting more men was vital because it’s “the College of William and Mary, not the College of Mary and Mary.” You can be sure male affirmative action is on the drawing board. The mindsets, educational content and administration of the traditional system still prevail in many colleges. Women, beware of the archetype and know that a strategy to compensate is still necessary.
So what does this mean for women who aspire to succeed in higher education and beyond?
Start your life strategy early. Pick your major carefully. That lack-of-high-school-math excuse for fewer women in STEM passes the buck. Women math and science fans still skip STEM majors because of the overt discrimination they know they can expect for the duration of their careers. Who can have a good life in a hostile culture? You can apply that reality to finance, economics, law, philosophy and more. Break the mold anyway, but know that you are breaking the mold.
Research. Research. Research. Find out if the colleges that interest you are located in a place that leans politically right or left (guess which local mindset would be best for you?). Search for gender-equity issues in the colleges you are considering; if male athletes walk on water, know that the thinking is pervasive. Look at the percentage of female instructors with tenure; does the college keep the ladies part-time as adjunct instructors, career “freeway flyers,” as they try to stitch together whole jobs at several colleges? Search for background on instructors, administrators and organizations on campus—and especially research potential dating partners (this could involve their histories with alcohol, abuse or pregnancy). Maybe fees for background checks should be considered necessary student expenses for women?
Take a day to walk around campus to see what your potential instructors look like and how they act; sit in on a class. Hints of narcissism and royal behavior are red flags. Remember, they will be advising and evaluating you. It is possible to proactively design your college experience without discrimination, but don’t assume a priori equality.
Beware of female deans and administrators who attempt to make their numbers look good by being more discriminatory than men—they’re trying too hard to please the boss to reap collateral benefits. When I started teaching, my female dean lied to me about the teaching load requirement. A very kind man, another dean, set me straight, and I forced the college to pay up. Seek out those kind men; however, they rarely confront the unkind ones, so their sins tend to be those of omission. Again, you must do the research and find them.
After graduation, do the same vetting of employers. It’s pretty tricky to keep the bad boy stuff under wraps anymore, but still, women are not doing enough sleuthing in school or out. Recent studies of hiring algorithms have found that if a woman’s resume contains words that reflect gender—maybe a reference to a women’s college or sports team—the apps may perceive her as a less-than-ideal fit for a job traditionally associated with men.
And finally, remember that confidence is more than a feeling; it’s also a strategy. A solid plan to deflect discrimination instills confidence. For instance, if you genuinely believe you have been discriminated against and have your evidence, go right to the top with your issue. College management understands the power of repercussions and social media, and they are on thin ice now because retention and enrollment numbers are dropping. Add your prejudicial experience to instructor evaluations; this is especially effective if the person does not yet have tenure. Ask for and search out the statistics for enrollment, grades, rankings, grants, and anything else supposed to be gender-balanced and for “all students.” Colleges have the numbers—they know the actual scores but seldom release the biased ones. “The Art of War” advises “know your enemy” (and the numbers)—it’s why winners are confident people.
Trees do fall on houses, but not as often if you take initiative to plant your own. Understand the species, do the research, evaluate the options, know the drawbacks of each choice and plant the right tree on solid, level ground. Prune it, fertilize it and check on it often. Build a strong, safe nest in it for yourself.