The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The white man’s path is a rut for the rest of us

Kathleen Van Schalkwyk, left, and other protesters rally for equal pay for women in March 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Jennifer Palmieri was an adviser to Hillary Clinton and is the author of “She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World.”

A few years ago, I would have dismissed as unhelpful the notion that I was a woman struggling to succeed in a man’s world. I thought I was doing great. I was working in Barack Obama’s White House. Hillary Clinton’s election as the first female president seemed to be on the horizon and, while I saw all the ways women lagged behind men and the higher standards we were often held to, I believed women would eventually catch up.

But I no longer see it as self-defeating to call myself an outsider in a man’s world. Instead, I think the self-preservation of all marginalized people demands it. Patiently waiting for things to improve has served only to sustain the very systems that keep women and people of color from obtaining real power. The white man’s path has turned into our rut. One hundred years after women gained suffrage, we continue to live in a world in which women are consistently undervalued and remain grossly underrepresented in positions of power.

This is, by definition, a man’s world, and we must declare our independence from it.

In some respects, I am not unusual. A new study by the Pew Research Center tied to the 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment found two-thirds of women believe America still has further to go to achieving gender equality. Happily, the study shows an increasing a number of men also agree that more work needs to be done.

Suffrage gave women political power and tools to gain entry into the man’s world. Women made steady progress for decades, but in recent years we have plateaued. The stagnation is well documented: The gender wage gap, which began to narrow 40 years ago, has remained stable for the past 15 years. According to a 2019 study done by McKinsey & Co., women earn more bachelor’s degrees than men, but men obtain more entry-level positions in corporate America. The same study found that men continue to significantly outnumber women in manager-level positions (62 to 38 percent). Only 7 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and fewer than 1 percent are black. Congress is still 75 percent male.

None of us should suffer from impostor syndrome, but if you are someone other than a white man, you are not wrong to feel like you are operating in a world built for somebody else. The foundations of the power systems and market forces under which business and government operate today were established hundreds of years ago by white men, and they were specifically designed to accommodate them. It’s why women as executive officers and professional athletes still earn less than men, and why women working through the pandemic are in the perverse position of making up the bulk of essential workers while also being in the lowest-paid professions.

There is nothing more we need to prove. The problem is the man’s world no longer works for us. It’s time to blow it up. Man’s world, we’re just not that into you.

How to begin? We can start by rejecting the notion that advancement of marginalized populations is a zero-sum game. Believing women are in competition with each other for a limited amount of success limits all of our progress. Do not be placated by token gestures that do not lead to substantive progress toward equality for all. Accepting less than we deserve sustains the old world. Speak forthrightly, and say what you believe.

We can destigmatize ambition as an undesirable quality by proclaiming and celebrating our own ambition and that of others. Advocate for other women and all people of color as you would advocate for yourself. White women have a special obligation to do this as we historically have not been good allies to black Americans. As much as patriarchal systems have held us back, they have also been a refuge, and our acquiescence to them has helped prop them up. It puts more of an impetus on white women to lead the charge to upend them now.

Real change lies in us all sticking together. It is marginalized populations divided against each other that prop up the old patriarchy. And we can say it aloud: I am proud to declare that I have been a woman struggling to succeed in a man’s world and even more proud to declare my independence from it.

Read more:

Nikki Stamp: I’m a female surgeon. I feel uncomfortable telling girls they can be one, too.

Helaine Olen: Why the age of inequality has made us less happy

The Post’s View: U.S. income inequality doesn’t have to be the worst in the industrialized world

Megan McArdle: Why the debate about equal pay for U.S. women’s soccer isn’t that clear cut

Suzanna Danuta Walters: If male candidates want to show they get it, they should get out