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Hold the Sneakers

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, October 30, 2009

To be honest, I don't care whether Valerie Jarrett plays basketball or not. And I certainly would hate to see Ambassador Susan Rice, known to be a good player, missing meetings at the United Nations so she can make it to the White House court.

Last week, the president's all-male basketball game became a front-page story questioning the absence of women from the game. Given the way politics usually works, that means next week, Jarrett or Rice or even Michelle herself is likely to be told she is "needed" on the court -- at least for the picture.

Most successful women above a certain age know what I mean. The "skirt at the table" is the way women lawyers refer to it. It's better than not having a skirt at the table, and it's an opportunity to show your stuff. Tokenism is better than exclusion, but it's not the answer.

In the past 30 years, women have reached the point where, at least most of the time, one of us gets to be in the picture. We put on our sneakers and try to look like we belong in the game, even when it starts out just being for show. We use opportunities, however we get them. Still.

The issue is not who the president plays basketball with, or golfs with, or hangs out with in his free time. The point of the front-page story was not, ultimately, that men of a certain age still pretend they can play basketball the way they did 20 years ago, while women don't kid themselves.

The reason the basketball game got attention is because the media are finally asking, as they should, whether the Obama White House is really all that different from those that preceded it, at least in terms of gender. Yes, there are more people of color at the table. But are there more women?

However many women you count as part of the inner circle at the White House, I can promise you that there are more hanging out there than in most corporate boardrooms. Women have stalled in the fight for parity in business. Whether you look at the number of CEOs, top earners or board members, you find that the very slow progress of the last two decades has now stalled, or worse.

More than 90 percent of the top earners and more than 80 percent of the board members are still men. And nothing about those numbers is changing. Every year, I study the reports from Catalyst and other organizations. The curves have all gone flat.

There are, to be sure, many reasons for this. Unconscious discrimination is hard to recognize and hard to fight. No one says they're looking for someone just like themselves; it's something boards and top officers do unconsciously, replicating themselves in the process.

Too few of the women who do make it into the room understand that they will have more power -- not less -- if they find chairs for other women to join them. "Only woman in the room" syndrome is a disease for which other women always pay.

And yes, too many of us don't fight for what we want or deserve. "My children only have one mother," we say, which is a very good reason not to let work get in the way. But too often it also becomes an excuse for giving up on promotions and opportunities that should rightfully be ours. Facing workplaces that have failed to accommodate the demands of family, we adapt to them, rather than insisting that they adapt to us.

No wonder we're unhappy.

I had to laugh when a recent round of reports on the status of American women found us to be less happy than we used to be, and more than one commentator immediately concluded that feminism must be to blame. So what if the stay-at-home moms were no happier than us working girls? Feminism must be to blame.

I have another theory. The problem isn't that feminism has changed everything, but that it hasn't changed everything enough. We're now in the picture, but we still don't control the game. And until we do, of course we're going to be unhappy. Susan Rice has a demanding job, and a husband and a family. Who's got time for free throws?

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