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Can High-Achieving Women Succeed in Boys' Clubs? We Asked Geena Davis

When I got a job, it took years for my mind to work around my new reality: Women were not particularly successful here.

Yesterday, female leaders in entertainment, finance, education, law, and media joined a group of high school girls and college women to discuss the "status of women and girls" in California. Midway through the event, we learned that women in my state earn more associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees than our male peers. The crowd burst into applause. I didn't clap. I knew what was coming next.

Only 62 percent of women are employed full-time, versus 72 percent of men. We earn 84 cents on the male dollar. Though women still occupy traditionally female—and traditionally undervalued—occupations like health care, education, and administrative jobs, men still make more money than women in all of those fields, and every other occupational category. Women make up 9 percent of California mayors and 38 percent of its representatives in Congress. In children's films, only 20 percent of employed characters are female. (Even crowd scenes are composed of only 17 percent women). This report focused specifically on how women in my state are faring, but these trends are national: Women are educated better, occupy less prestigious jobs, are paid worse, and are rendered invisible everywhere.

Reason tells us that women's educational successes should translate directly to workplace gains. It hasn't worked out like that. And I fear that in some ways, women's success early in life only intensifies the rude awakening we receive when we are ejected into the boys' clubs of the working world.

Like most women, I experienced my fair share of gender bias in college—I saw girls shamed for sex, fended off leering professors, laughed through sexist jokes, and eventually realized I counted abusive boyfriends among my closest friends. When I was harassed at my low-paying law firm job, I dismissed it as a fluke. But in class, I was empowered to work hard to make straight As. When I struggled with low self-esteem, I clung to that transcript as an objective assessment of my talent, intellect, and self-worth. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but at the top of the academic food chain, women were everywhere.

Then I got a job, and it took years for my mind to work around my new reality: Women were not particularly successful here. In fact, few of my peers were women. Nearly all of my managers were men. Many of them were kind, capable, and encouraging—when they weren't screaming at me, hitting on me, or dramatically ripping up my work and throwing it in the trash. The male dominance of my field was a persistent drain on me, the way the female networks of my college years had slowly built me up. Powerful women were often dismissed as bitches, then neutralized. Others dropped out and had kids. Absent a role model a few rungs above me, my career ambitions narrowed. I'm ashamed to say that I even began to see other women as a threat—I had internalized the idea that there was not room for all of us. But I didn't have any ledger on which to chart this slow sexism that marked my industry, no objective report to confirm that the bias mattered. Suddenly, I was forced to run an entirely different game, and I didn't know any of the rules.

UCLA professor Linda Sax, who grew up in the 1970s, described a similar feeling at yesterday's panel: She thought she had achieved gender parity at age of 8, but then saw that feeling of equality slip away by 18 when she found herself surrounded by boys in her upper-level math classes. A child of the '90s, I had the luxury of building my confidence and skills until I was slapped with my own sexist reality at 22. But I do wonder whether, had I been forced to more directly confront this sexist framework at an earlier age, I would have been better equipped to deal with the realities of the working world.

After this series of discouraging facts was aired among California's young high school and college women, journalist and panel moderator Val Zavala implored the powerful women around her to administer some constructive advice so that we wouldn't all "leave here depressed!" Again and again, the women in attendance—actress Geena Davis, yoga entrepreneur Kimberly Fowler, and Sax—encouraged the girls to build confidence through the female networks of sports teams. Then, attorney and public servant Maria Blanco provided an interesting variation on the theme: Study the sports page, she told the girls in attendance. Even if you don't like baseball, you'll be forced to talk about it with the men who will be your bosses some day.

The skills we build among networks of women are crucial. But a framework for actually deploying them in a company filled with men doesn't yet exist. "Many of my female peers feel like impostors in their success," I later told Geena Davis in the press junket that followed. "When we do gain confidence in ourselves, we're treated like bitches. How do we deal with that?"

Davis was at a loss. "It's so dumb," she told me. "Can we just get past this?" Not yet.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user cassetteject

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