The Mismeasure of Woman

Finally! I hear we’re all living in a women’s world now.

For the first time, women make up half the work force. The Shriver Report, out just last week, found that mothers are the major breadwinners in 40 percent of families. We have a female speaker of the House and a female secretary of state. Thirty-two women have served as governors. Thirty-eight have served as senators. Four out of eight Ivy League presidents are women.

Great news, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, it couldn’t be more spectacularly misleading.

The truth is, women haven’t come nearly as far as we would have predicted 25 years ago. Somewhere along the line, especially in recent years, progress for women has stalled. And attitudes have taken a giant leap backward.

I never expected that we would be in this predicament. My generation of professional women took equality for granted. When I was in college in the 1980s, many of us looked derisively at the women’s liberation movement. That was something that strident, humorless, shrill women had done before us.

We were sure we were beyond it. We were post-feminists. After all, we lived equally with men. We felt that when we took our place in society, issues of gender — and race too — wouldn’t be a factor.

Back in college, my friends and I never even had a conversation about balancing work and family. We had never heard of glass ceilings. We didn’t talk about sexual harassment — that was just part of life. As a freshman, I had an interview for a magazine internship in New York City. As I sat down, making sure to demurely close up my slit-front skirt over my knees, the interviewer barked, “If you want the job, you’ll leave that open.”

We felt the same way when we went to work. After graduation, when I first joined The Wall Street Journal, I could count the number of female reporters there on one hand. The tiny ladies’ room was for guests. The paper was written by men, for men. It didn’t even cover industries that were relatively female-friendly, like publishing, advertising and retailing. When the newspaper finally did introduce coverage of those sectors a few years later, most male reporters weren’t interested. So we women stepped up.

Our corner of the newsroom was promptly dubbed the “Valley of the Dolls.” But we gained respect after one of our number won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on the tobacco industry. Of course, when Hollywood made the movie about the investigation, her role was played by a man.

During these years, we were competing with men and we were winning. We learned to curse like truck drivers and work our sources as well as the next guy. We broke major stories. And we dressed the part, out-machoing the men with our truly tragic wardrobe choices — boxy suits with giant shoulder pads and floppy bow ties.

I was promoted to a Page One editor while I was pregnant. When my children were babies, my bosses allowed me to work mostly at home. Eventually, I became The Journal’s first female deputy managing editor. By the time I left the paper in 2005, more than a third of the paper’s editors were female. And when I moved on to create Portfolio for Condé Nast — the magazine company best known for titles like Vanity Fair, Vogue and The New Yorker — half of our top editors were female.

And yet during the last few years, I couldn’t help but notice that the situation for women as a whole wasn’t improving, and was even getting worse.

Consider the facts: When I graduated from college in 1983, women earned only 64 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Today? Women earn just 77 cents. By other measures, women’s gains have stalled: board seats and corporate officer posts have been flat — or declined in recent years.

More proof: According to the American Bar Association, women in 2008 made up almost half of all associates, but only 18.3 percent of partners. Only 15 women run Fortune 500 companies.

I am still one of the few women to have run a major business magazine. My career was recently summed up in a New York magazine article as leggy.

And I got off easy. During the presidential primaries, while the news media was on their best behavior to avoid racial stereotypes, it was still O.K. to discuss Hillary Clinton’s “cankles.”

Even the positive numbers we’ve heard about during the recession are misleading — the ones that seem to indicate that women have suffered fewer job losses than men. The reason? Women are still concentrated in lower-paying fields, rather than the high-paying industries like finance and real estate that were hardest hit.

So why have we stalled out?

Part of the reason can be traced to the aftermath of 9/11.

Everyone’s life was reshaped by 9/11. Like many New Yorkers, I experienced that day in an intensely personal way: I was in the World Trade Center with a colleague when the first plane hit. And we were just outside the second tower, making our way through burning debris, hunks of airplane seats and far worse when the second plane came in directly over our heads.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Americans pulled together. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, famously declared it was “the end of the age of irony.”

He was right.

And then he was wrong. Because, as so often happens in the wake of a traumatic event, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. The war in Iraq tore America apart. The Internet gave everyone a soapbox. The louder, the more offensive, the better.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that exactly at this moment, women began losing ground — and not just in measurable ways, like how many women make partner or get jobs as chief executives.

I’m referring to how we are perceived. The conversation online about women, as about so many other topics, degenerated from silly and snarky to just plain ugly — and it seeped into the mainstream.

Recently, before a TV appearance, I did an Internet search on one of the interviewers so I could learn more about her — and got a full page of results about her breasts.

This was hardly an isolated incident. Whether it’s Keith Olbermann of MSNBC calling Michelle Malkin, the conservative blogger, “a big mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it,” or Glenn Beck of Fox News suggesting that “ugly women” are probably “progressive as well,” women these days are portrayed as either witches or bimbos, with pretty much no alternatives in between.

I’ve been puzzled by these screeds, which are so at odds with the real achievements documented in the Shriver Report and elsewhere. And then it struck me: Part of the reason we’ve lost our way, part of the reason my generation became complacent, is that many of us have been defining progress for women too narrowly. We’ve focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes.

I’ve spent my adult life in business journalism, where we calculate success using hard facts and figures. Researchers have evaluated women’s progress the same way. But in today’s noisy world, that approach isn’t enough. We’ve got to include popular perceptions in the equation as well. Progress in one area without the other is no progress at all.

This isn’t simply a woman’s issue; it affects us all. It isn’t about blaming men, or about embracing feminism, which remains a toxic term for some women. Instead, it is up to all of us to help change the conversation.

How do we get to there from here?

First, we can begin by telling girls to have confidence in themselves, to not always feel the need to be the passive “good girl.” In my time as an editor, many, many men have come through my door asking for a raise or demanding a promotion. Guess how many women have ever asked me for a promotion?

I’ll tell you. Exactly ... zero.

Sure, it’s a risk to ask for a raise. But women need to take risks — and to realize that at some point they will fail. This is an incredibly hard thing to do, especially for women brought up in a culture that celebrates unrealistic perfection in every sphere, from beauty to housekeeping. The biggest professional risk I ever took was leaving a secure job at The Wall Street Journal to create a business magazine at a company known for glossy fashion titles — and that at a time when all print was struggling.

There were plenty of naysayers, and I got to see myself portrayed as both a witch and a bimbo, a twofer! But I believed in our mission.

At the end of the day, Portfolio couldn’t survive the economic collapse. Still, we had created a magazine we were proud of that provided a venue for talented writers and editors, many of them women who hadn’t had that kind of chance to shine before in the macho world of financial journalism.

Which leads me to another piece of advice — have a sense of humor. Believe me, it’s needed.

Case in point: My favorite Christmas card ever came from Martha Stewart — while she was in prison in West Virginia. It was beautiful, on heavy paper stock, and showed a gorgeous wreath. And on the inside, homey as could be, it was engraved with holiday wishes from “Martha Stewart, Alderson, West Virginia.”

One final suggestion: don’t be afraid to be a girl.

Women do have a different culture from men. And that can give us some tremendous advantages. Women are built to withstand hardship and pain. (Anyone who has given birth knows what I’m talking about.) That’s a big benefit at a time like this, with the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and rising.

Women define success differently; for some it may be a career, for others the ability to stay home with children. They also define themselves differently. I’m in the unfortunate position of witnessing many friends and colleagues laid off over the past year. But the women are less apt to fall apart — and this goes even for the primary breadwinners — because they are less likely to define themselves by their job in the first place.

Certainly, when you look at the numbers, women have made tremendous strides over the past 25 years. But in the process, we lost sight of something important. After focusing for so long on better jobs and higher pay, maybe the best thing — the enduring thing — we can do is make sure respect is part of the equation too.

If we can change the conversation about women, the numbers will finally add up. And that’s what real progress looks like.

Joanne Lipman, a former deputy managing editor at The Wall Street Journal and the founder editor in chief of Condé Nast Portfolio magazine.