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The Missing Story Behind Women’s First-Time Accomplishments

Plenty of women are breaking new glass ceilings, but does celebrating these firsts leave out the bigger picture?

The Missing Story Behind Women’s First-Time Accomplishments
[Photo: Flickr user Philo Nordlund]

When it comes to women’s first-time accomplishments, 2014 was a pretty good year. Janet Yellen was the first woman to be appointed to lead the Federal Reserve. Megan Smith the country’s first female chief technology officer and Megan Brennan the first woman to become the United States Postmaster General. And who can forget Philadelphia’s own Mo’ne Davis, who was the first young woman to earn a win and pitch a shut-out in Little League World Series history?

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And while these are all noteworthy accomplishments worthy of accolades, do we still need to call out the fact that they’re women? Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the “first woman” qualifier and just recognize the accomplishments for what they are.

No, not yet, says Nanette Braun, chief of communications and advocacy at UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, which was formed in July 2010 by the UN General Assembly to promote gender equality.

Braun believes that as long as women face barriers, it’s important to celebrate first-time achievements to show other women that such accomplishments are possible. By highlighting role models who break through arbitrary gender-based barriers, creating new opportunities for women, we show a new course for women, she says. Such stories inspire others to follow suit so that the achievements of these pioneers become the “new normal” for women.

“At current rates of change, it will be nearly 60 more years for women to reach parity in parliaments. Over 80 years for women and men to have the same economic opportunities. This pace is too slow! Of course we do not want to wait that long,” she says.

Getting Overshadowed by Gender

When Dr. Nancy Andrews was appointed as the first woman dean of a top 10 U.S research-based medical school in 2007, she had no idea that was the case until the university’s PR team pointed it out to her. She was surprised by the attention that was paid to the fact she was a woman, when she wanted to focus on the job at hand. She says she’s “on the fence” about whether it’s time to stop calling out gender.

“I think the downside is that it’s labeling the person and maybe distracting from whatever the role is and the importance of the role and the qualifications of the person for the role to point it out. But on the other hand there are still a lot of firsts yet to be accomplished and I think that there’s an advantage to reminding people that we’re far from there and that these firsts are still happening,” Andrews says.

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Telling the Untold Story

Joanna Barsh, coauthor of How Remarkable Women Lead, and founder and director emeritus of consulting giant McKinsey & Co.’s Centered Leadership Project, an initiative focused on women and leadership. She says reporting women’s “firsts” is a necessary, but not sufficient thing to do. Where the reports fall short is in the context: How represented women are in the field.

In addition to talking about the “first woman” achievement, we need to talk about how many women are working in the field or are represented in that particular population, she says. Doing so gives context and shows how much progress is or isn’t being made, which is just as important as whether one woman achieved a leadership role. When we point out the representation metrics, the picture becomes clearer and tells the stories of how much work is left to do, she says.

“[Say a woman accomplished this] and 30% of women are represented on the top team, or 30% of women are represented in this field, whether it’s Hollywood top celebrities or university deans, or Nobel Prize winners, when you can say 30% of them are women, that is a real metric that says, we’re earning our place,” Barsh says.

She adds that most women don’t want to the “first woman” anything. Instead, they want to make a difference and excel in their fields. They seek out situations where they’re valued and respected. “Firsts” typically come from that passion and excellence. It’s inspiring, but it’s not the whole story, she says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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