Hurdles and Mountains

Recently, Duke elected a new student government president and it made me start thinking about what it means to see a woman of color in a position of power.

It isn’t necessarily about the actions that a woman takes once she is in the position or even about how she got there, because while they are both important, it’s the image that means the most. It’s about the image of possibility that her position gives young women. It’s about the hope that her success invokes.

When I was younger, I was incredibly lucky to have been provided with the constant image of a strong woman. My mom, a single mother, epitomized the strength and confidence that I knew must be within all women. Yet, despite this strong image in my personal life, society is still overwhelmingly filled with the seemingly disproportionate success of men.

When I attempt to picture the positions of power in our society images of men are most often brought to the forefront of my mind. I’m struck with images of the CEOs, the doctors, the engineers, the politicians, and the people that our society is comfortable with deeming successful. Sadly, more often than not, men dominate these fields.

For instance, women only make up 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to Fortune. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up only about 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce despite making up half of the college-educated workforce. Women make up only about 20 percent of the Senate and slightly less than 20 percent in the House of Representatives, and of this 20 percent in the House, women of color only make up 9 percent.

Women who attain positions of power are still incredibly impressive, because doing so is not as simple or easy as we may want it to seem. If it were, these successful positions would be entirely more balanced than they actually are.

Despite my understanding that women are highly capable, despite the successes that I know women have achieved, women still infrequently have the opportunity to serve in these positions. Women are rarely given the opportunity to serve as the image of inspiration that young girls need. More often than not, the placement of a woman in a position of power means something significant because women are so often denied these chances.

It is not just that women are invisible or under-recognized, despite this being true. It is that women, particularly women of color, are too often denied even the opportunity to fight for these positions.

Just think about the disparate number of women in these powerful roles and then do me a favor by considering the even smaller number of women of color in these same positions. There is something so tangibly wrong with these numbers that one would be incorrect to call it anything other than an injustice.

Believe me, if women, especially women of color, weren’t being denied these opportunities, they would be visible. In fact, I am positive you wouldn’t be able to miss their strength, success, and beauty.

Women in power can give hope not only to young girls, but also to grown women. These women, whether they know it or not, provide an image that seems achievable, an image that encourages and empowers women to strive for similar success.

However, it means something a little different to see a woman of color in power. I would argue that it means something more.

It is one thing for a white woman to overcome the hurdles that our society has created, and entirely another for women of color to get over the mountains. While I would never say that success is simple for any woman, success is arguably more attainable for white women.

It is simply what women of color have to overcome in order to achieve success that is not only disproportionately difficult, but also unreasonably overlooked. These women have to surpass the expectations, or the lack there of, that society has of them. Yet, these expectations are not just that of women, they are the expectations of these women’s’ races as well. They have to overcome beauty standards for women of color that are drastically more difficult than for white women, beauty standards that often determine how seriously a woman is taken. Women of color have to overcome stereotypes, such as the angry Black woman or spicy Latina that not only confine their personalities, but also diminish any of the characteristics that make them unique. Women of color have to take the place in life that they are given, disprove all of the pre-determined judgments, and transcend all of the unequal opportunities to make success even close to the size of a hurdle.

Women of color have to combat the compounding effects of racism and sexism, and then attempt to make success a possibility.

So I look at the newest DSG President, a woman who is incredibly smart and capable, and I think about what this means for women of color on our campus. I’d like to think that it means that our campus recognizes the equal capability of women of color, but I don’t know if I would say that’s true. I’d like to say that this means women of color have an equal chance of obtaining leadership positions on our campus, but I don’t know if I would say that’s true either.  

Maybe I would just say that we’re making some progress in one way or another. Maybe I would say that another sliver of hope has been added to the bowl that started out empty. Maybe I would say that slowly but surely we are shrinking the mountain into a large hill, but even that seems more optimistic than the truth would allow.

So maybe I’ll just say congratulations and continue to be hopeful, because as fate would have it, we elected a woman of color on International Women’s Day and I have to believe that means something.

Kristina Smith