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Why the future should be female. By Michele Norris

Our writer says it's time for women to reject inferior status, demand equality, and unapologetically revel in their ambition and success.

When I headed off to college, my mother gave me a piece of folded-up paper with a message she thought I would need. She wrote it longhand on a page torn from one of the little notebooks she kept by the phone.

It said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

It’s a quote widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, and it was a wonderful gift for a young woman setting off into the world.

I wish I’d kept that tiny piece of paper. For a time it was in my wallet, and then, after it got frayed and kind of dingy, I put it inside a sparkly bobby pin and kept it in a dresser drawer with jewelry and keepsakes. After several years and several moves, I lost track of it—but I’ve always tried to cling tightly to the idea that we have the power to reject any attempt to make us feel small or subordinate.

The key word is “feel.” As an African-American woman, my mother was acutely aware that a person, and a woman in particular, could be shoved into a lower rank in a very real and profound way. Laws could dictate where you could live or work and whether you could get a business license or own property or vote. Customs and social mores and self-appointed status checkers could keep you out of the boardroom or the clubhouse. But no one actually has the power to reach inside your soul and turn down the dial on your self-confidence.

My mother has a strong work ethic, but she also has a fierce “worth ethic.” Self-regard in the face of oppression is her superpower.

That word—power—takes on different dimensions viewed through a gendered lens. Power is most often associated with strength, which in turn is linked to physical prowess or financial might. The default assumption is that all of society benefits when men are raised to become powerful—their families, their communities, their places of work and worship. When women talk about exerting power or flexing their collective might by coming together, the assumptions are very different. It’s too often seen as a zero-sum game, in which women gain power at the expense of men and at the peril of larger society.

Could we finally be at a turning point?

I came of age during a period of protest in the streets. Women have been marching and picketing and demanding their rights for my entire life. And as with most movements, progress comes in fits and starts, times of setbacks and periods that feel like a whoosh of momentum. The Equal Rights Amendment, first drafted in 1923, seemed certain to be ratified by the early 1970s but stalled. We are now in another moment of sweeping progress, most evident in the #MeToo movement—an astounding upwelling of emboldened and infuriated women saying time’s up to sexual harassment and assault. That revolt has produced a new wave of legislation, greater awareness, and immediate consequences for men who had previously gotten a pass or slap on the wrist for predatory behavior. Veterans in the struggle for women’s rights, used to disappointment, are hoping this really is a long-lasting movement, not just a moment.

This is an era of outrage and division, but there are strong reasons for optimism. We are witnessing an age when six women can stand on debate stages in the United States and credibly argue that they should be elected to the most powerful office in the world and when a woman is the speaker of the House of Representatives. We live in a time when a woman can become a four-star general or an Oscar-winning film director or a Fortune 500 CEO.

Around the globe women are gaining unprecedented power. They hold a majority of seats in the lower house of Rwanda’s legislature. Nearly two-thirds of the Spanish government’s cabinet ministers are women. The only country that banned women from driving, Saudi Arabia, has finally allowed it. Women have led almost a third of the world’s countries.

In a seismic development, the U.S. women’s national soccer team dominated the World Cup with such force, consistency, and chutzpah that it outperformed the U.S. men’s team in victories, viewership, and pop culture status. When you mention American soccer today, the women are the ones who symbolize the sport. But we still live in a time when those megastars are fighting in court to ensure they are paid the same as the men. Actually, it’s not even about equal pay for equal work; it’s equal pay for demonstrably more successful work. These are women who strut their success, reveling in their triumphs on the field and becoming role models for women seeking to challenge the basis for their second-class status.

For centuries women have been viewed as the weaker, more vulnerable gender. They have been rendered inferior, not necessarily with their consent, but with considerable help from social constructs and scientific research. British journalist Angela Saini documents how science has long defined and confined women in her book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (see essay “Once, most famous scientists were men. But that’s changing.”). Saini argues that male scientists used their studies and influence to amplify their own attitudes about gender (and racial) inequality. The results of their work “hardened sexism into something that couldn’t even be challenged.” And to make sure that women didn’t have the chance to prove the science wrong, they were denied the ability to flex their intellect or fully develop their talents.

Much of the research that tagged women as the weaker sex was flawed or biased. A body of work counters that early science, showing that women possess intellectual capabilities equal to their male counterparts. While men have greater physical strength and a height and weight advantage, studies show that women have a distinct edge when it comes to resilience and long-term survival.

So why do men hold more power than women today? Why does gender inequality persist? The explanation is so often: It’s just the way it’s always been. That’s simply not good enough. And that justification should crumble in the face of evidence showing that places with policies hampering or oppressing women lose ground economically.

Take Asia as an example. Slightly more than half of the region’s women work, and those women are paid less than men. Gender norms, barriers to education, and entrenched cultural forces could maintain that status quo, but analysts warn that countries impeding the advancement of women will pay a steep price. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that the regional economy would gain as much as $4.5 trillion in annual GDP by 2025 if women were no longer sidelined in the Asian workforce.

Every country on the planet should take notice. Those T-shirts and posters that read “The future is female” should warn instead “The future better be female!”

But the obstacles to power are deeply ingrained and aren’t easily overcome. You can write laws telling people what they can and cannot do, but you cannot legislate their feelings about themselves or others. We are still ambivalent about women and power. Studies suggest that women are more apt to be deemed “unlikable” or “untrustworthy” if they are perceived to be powerful, brash, or openly ambitious—traits that, by the way, are seen as management material in men.

New York University professor Madeline E. Heilman conducted a series of studies to investigate the reaction to successful women in jobs traditionally held by men. In one experiment she asked undergraduates to review nearly identical profiles for employees holding the position of assistant vice president for sales in an aircraft company. One of the employees was named “James.” The other was named “Andrea.” They were in the top 5 percent in employee performance reviews and described as “stellar performers” or “rising stars.” Their p