“I may be a little greyer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like.” Speaking at a White House summit on women, US President Barack Obama made his position on gender equality clear.
The United State of Women day featured activists, celebrities and policy-makers. Oprah Winfrey and comedian Amy Poehler were there, as was the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
Mrs Obama’s advice to the men in the audience: “Be better.”
‘A little greyer’
President Obama explained that since his birth, gender equality in America – and indeed around the world – had made extraordinary progress, although he added that this had not been inevitable. “It’s the result of slow, tireless, often frustrating and unheralded work,” he said.
At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in January, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also declared himself a feminist. He called on fathers to make it clear to their sons the acceptable way to treat women. He declared: “We shouldn’t be afraid of the word feminist. Men and women should use it to describe themselves.”
Breaking down stereotypes
Back in Washington DC, President Obama urged the crowd to keep working to break down stereotypes, to refuse to continue to be boxed in by them.
Gender stereotypes have consequences for the entire population, he explained. Whether it be stigmatizing men for shedding a tear, or penalizing working mothers, attitudes need to change. This extends beyond the home into education and the workplace:
“We need to keep changing the attitude that prioritizes being confident, competitive and ambitious in the workplace … Unless you’re a woman.”
He spoke of the steps his administration has taken to boost equality. The first bill he signed into law was equal pay legislation, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, he reminded the audience. It's a law that makes it easier to for women to challenge unfair pay.
However, his efforts have also frequently been blocked in Congress. As a result, President Obama has taken executive action on equal pay and family leave – although these are limited in scope to federal employees, and some federal contractors.