August 3, 2016; Glamour

In a personal essay for Glamour that quickly earned viral status last week, President Barack Obama penned his thoughts on the progress of women and his own progress as a feminist, particularly over the course of his presidential term.

In his own words, President Obama reflects on his time in office, watching daughters Sasha and Malia grow up into “smart, funny, kind, wonderful young women” and admiring the First Lady’s balance of working woman and mother. The President writes further that he admittedly took for granted the conveniences he experienced while juggling his roles serving as a state legislator, law professor, husband and father. And refreshingly, for the second time this summer, the president declared, “This is what a feminist looks like”—a popular proclamation in the women’s rights movement.

Despite the advances of women’s rights during the president’s two terms in office, he admits there is still much work left to do.

We shouldn’t downplay how far we’ve come. That would be a disservice to all those who spent their lives fighting for justice. At the same time, there’s still a lot of work we need to do to improve the prospects of women and girls here and around the world.

Specifically referring to the gains women have made in the workforce, President Obama points out that women “not only make up roughly half the workforce, but are leading in every sector, from sports to space, from Hollywood to the Supreme Court.”

And while, yes, women represent 57 percent of the workforce, perhaps what the president means when he acknowledges some of the “work we need to do” is narrowing the gender gap in leadership positions in various career settings. To further illustrate the point, in 2016, Catalyst shared figures illustrating the number of women who hold leadership positions in S&P 500 companies. The findings were for the most part underwhelming:

  • 4.4 percent of CEOs are women
  • 9.5 percent of top earners are women
  • 19.9 percent of board seats are held by women
  • 25.1 percent of executive/senior level officials and managers are women
  • 36.4 percent of first/mid-level officials and managers are women
  • 44.3 percent of all S&P 500 employees are women

President Obama also admits more change is needed in how we as a country portray gender roles, calling for an eradication of stereotypes.

The good news is that everywhere I go across the country, and around the world, I see people pushing back against dated assumptions about gender roles.

Maybe the country could start by giving attention to the stereotype associated with the word “feminist.” While 60 percent of women and 33 percent of men consider themselves a feminist, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 43 percent still consider it as an angry description.

Despite the examples of shattering stereotypes and changing gender roles that President Obama mentions in his essay, including the nation’s first female Army Rangers and the number of men participating in the “It’s On Us” campaign—the president’s initiative to combat sexual violence on college campuses—a 2016 study published by Psychology of Women Quarterly (PWQ) suggests that gender stereotypes are just as strong today as they were in the 1980s. Surveys of adults in 1983 and 2014 revealed that gender stereotypes remained stable and female gender roles gained a significant increase in stereotyping.

From family leave policies to increased access to STEM education to fair pay acts, Barack Obama has made empowering women and girls a core tenet of his presidency. Under his leadership, women and minorities for the first time in history represent a majority of top policy appointments. While Obama has been criticized for not raising his voice loud enough for abortion rights, he states in the Glamour piece that he will keep working on good policies, including protecting all reproductive rights.

When it comes to advancing the rights and opportunities for women and girls, President Obama still might have some work to do, but he’s been a breath of fresh air from a feminist perspective. And as the president says, “The most important change may be the toughest of all—and that’s changing ourselves.”—Lindsay Walker