Douglas says she was inspired to write the book after noticing what seemed to be a glaring disconnect between the prime-time shows aimed at her generation—Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Closer, all featuring tough-talking, assured women who don’t use their sexuality to get what they want—and the programming aimed at her daughter. Eventually she came to believe both kinds of shows were perpetuating the myth that feminism’s work was over: “both mask, even erase how much still remains to be done for girls and women. The notion that there might, indeed, still be an urgency to feminist politics? You have to be kidding.”
Yet, as Vonk points out, female progress at top levels has not moved markedly in 20 years, Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated run for president notwithstanding. Certainly the numbers reflect this: in 1980, women held approximately seven per cent of the legislative seats across Canada.
Ten years later that number had risen to 17 per cent. But between 1990 and 2010, that percentage rose only six per cent—to 23 per cent. (According to the Intra-Parliamentary Union, Canada ranks a pathetic 50th on the world scale of women’s participation in politics, behind Rwanda, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.) Women’s presence in top-tier corporate jobs is even lower. According to Catalyst, an organization that tracks female advancement, women head only 3.8 per cent of FP 500 companies in Canada, and make up a scant 5.6 per cent of FP top earners, 14 per cent of board directors and 16.9 per cent of corporate officers.
The notion that the workplace is an equal playing field is a myth, says Susan Nierenberg, Catalyst’s vice-president of global marketing. The first study to look at the impact of the recession on high-potential women found those in senior leadership positions were three times more likely to lose their jobs than men. Another Catalyst study published last February tracking 4,500 M.B.A. graduates in their first jobs found that women begin at a lower level than men and earned $4,600 on average less. “And more importantly, they never catch up,” says Nierenberg. As the mother of a 25-year-old daughter entering the workforce, one who believes she’ll be treated equally to men, Nierenberg finds the research troubling: “I hate to tell her that’s not the way it is. I want her going into it thinking she can do anything. But I also want her to be smart about it.”
Foster says the conversation between mothers and daughters was far easier when sexism was as overt as it is on Mad Men—back when women had to quit their jobs after they got married or were banned outright from schools or careers. “The current messaging girls are getting is so explicit but the subtleties of it—which is the negative piece of it—is really hard to talk about,” she says. When mothers try to raise the subject, girls respond with “we just don’t get it,” she says: “What happens is that they shut down and say, ‘You don’t like me looking sexy. You just don’t like me looking older.’ Or, ‘Oh Mom, it isn’t like that any more.’ When the reality is, it’s still like that.” She tries to watch TV with her daughter to point out double standards on The Bachelor or Gossip Girl. “I’m just trying to tease apart for her that this isn’t reality. And that didn’t fly. She called me ‘a wet sock.’ ”
Social networking creates another barrier, Foster believes. Of course, parents have always been excluded from the schoolyard or after-school she-said, he-said telephone chats. But the notion that children are having global conversations from which parents are excluded amplifies the gulf: “There’s less public space to come together to discuss these things so it’s much easier for them to keep it to themselves. It’s one of the challenges we have with bullying—the whole notion of rumour-mongering, particularly sexualized rumours about girls.
And every time we try to have the critical dialogue it’s so decontextualized they think they’re being lectured.”
Lauren Kessler, author of the recently published My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence, has settled for text-messaging with her 16-year-old daughter Lizzie. “It’s lacking in nuance,” she admits. “But it’s better than nothing.”
Trying to maintain any sort of bridge with their daughters is paramount, given the paucity of female role models offered young girls, says Lloyd. Olivia Foster agrees, recalling being called upon to write essays in school about female role models. Coming up with someone who wasn’t famous primarily for her looks or style was next to impossible, she says: “It’s either Oprah or my mom. Not that my mom isn’t great. She is. But there really isn’t anyone else to choose from.”
Kessler still hopes she can fill that role for her daughter: “Call me Pollyanna, but I hope in 30 years my daughter will remember something I said, and she won’t remember the lyric of a violent, sexist rap song. Or even Snooki.”