Gender equality: A two-way street

  • Article by: VANESSA KLECKNER
  • Updated: May 16, 2012 - 8:07 PM
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In a commencement speech on Monday, President Obama encouraged the women of Barnard College in New York to step up and battle for gender equality, or in his words, "fight for your seat at the table."

Obama is right that women can do more to help close the gender gap in society. However, he missed half of the equation: the men. In today's society, women simply are not in a position to bring about gender equality without the support of men.

Why? Because men have the power.

Women have wanted equal rights all through the history of this country. They wanted them during the suffrage movement of the early 1900s. Heck, they wanted them when Abigail Adams urged her husband John to "remember the ladies" as he helped found the nation.

Despite centuries of struggle, Obama makes the solution to gender inequality seem so easy. He states, "And now that new doors have been opened for you, you've got an obligation to seize those opportunities."

Apparently opportunities for equality have been laid before women, ripe for the taking. Easy as that, right?

Wrong. Men occupy a higher percentage of most top jobs, and they continue to keep it that way.

Today, 83 percent of Congress is male, while 96 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are male.

Simply put, men hold the majority of power in today's society. That means men get to choose what rights and opportunities women will receive. And many times, they choose inequality.

A study by Princeton in 2000 studied sex bias in hiring for top symphony orchestras. Screens were put between the auditioners and the musicians to create blind auditions. With a blind audition, a woman's chances of advancing increased by 50 percent.

Another study in 2010 at Temple University found that women partners in large firms receive lower compensation on average than men despite equal productivity.

In other words, women are paid less because they are women. The inequality is unmistakable.

Obama acknowledges the problems in having such a gender disparity at the top. He offers a solution for women: Take those high-power jobs. Take a seat at the head of the table.

Admittedly, the disparity has been declining slowly over the past few decades. But are women supposed to wait a generation for these graduating women to claw their way up to positions of power before they finally receive equality?

According to his speech, Obama is not willing to wait. He wants these Barnard graduates and other women to make changes starting now.

His intentions are right, but his method is wrong. He tells women they have an "obligation to seize those opportunities" that they have been given. What opportunities can someone seize without power?

If we want change today, it needs to come from both women and men. Sure, women can take the lead, as Obama advocates. Men just can't stand in the way.

But don't be offended by this minor critique, Mr. President -- I am just taking a seat at the table.

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Vanessa Kleckner is a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn..

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