- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Don’t be alarmed: That shattering sound you hear is just another glass ceiling being broken by another ambitious woman.

From Wall Street to Main Street, on playing fields and in military commands, women have smashed through several long-standing barriers to achieve personal and professional “firsts” this year, as Hillary Rodham Clinton positions herself to crack the biggest glass ceiling — the presidency — in 2016.

“There have been some really wonderful firsts in terms of women, but that’s always a cup half-full, cup half-empty,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women.

“We always want to see women breaking through barriers, but it also continues to be a surprise for barriers that have yet to be broken,” Ms. Maatz says. “We want to get to the point where it’s just commonplace, not special, [to where] it’s just because equality exists, and this is the person who is best for the job at the time.”

The first eight months of 2014 have seen a host of female firsts:

Janet L. Yellen assumed the office of chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board.

PHOTOS: Women shattering glass ceiling, reaching new heights in 2014

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson assumed command of the Air Force Academy.

Becky Hammon became an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs — the NBA’s first full-time female coach.

Adm. Michelle Howard became the Navy’s first female four-star officer.

Michele Roberts was named executive director of the NBA players union — the first woman to lead a major U.S. sports union.

Sue Petrisin was elected president of Kiwanis International, the volunteer nonprofit with more than 300,000 members in 89 countries.

Lt. Gen. Lori J. Robinson was nominated to lead Pacific Air Forces, the first female commander of the Air Force component of U.S. Pacific Command.

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Shirley V. Hoogstra was elected president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.

Brig. Gen. Margaret W. Burcham became the first female general in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Marine Capt. Katie Higgins became the first female pilot in the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration squadron.

Racer Danica Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500, leading five laps and finishing eighth.

Former gymnast Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to complete NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” finals obstacle course.

“There have been some important firsts this year, some in the private sector, some in the public sector,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “What’s really going to be a sign is when we’re at the ‘seconds’ and ‘thirds.’ Sometimes the headline masks the reality of what is happening on a deeper, more systemic level.”

What is happening, analysts say, is a blurring of gender lines in the workplace as women strive to balance education, family and success.

“These issues are coming to a head,” says Mary Yeager, a history professor at UCLA. “I do think the state of the economy [and] globalization has forced the convergence around a kind of [ambiguity] of gender. Now it’s not as rigid as it used to be. People don’t have to use the word ‘gender.’ We’re living the experience of men can do women’s jobs [and] women can do men’s jobs.”

That is due in part to the changing structure of education, she says.

“Demographically, more women are getting their degrees,” Ms. Yeager says.

A Pew Research Center study in December showed that 38 percent of women between 25 and 32, compared to 31 percent of men, were entering the workforce with four-year degrees.

Well-educated and well-qualified women are the ones contributing to the boundary pushing, but economic recovery also has been a factor in the changing professional landscape, says Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. While the recession hurt millions of Americans, it also evened the playing field in the recovery.

“The trends are kind of mixed,” she says. “In overall terms, women have recovered more jobs than men. The job market hasn’t recovered as much for men.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women account for about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Ms. Maatz says many of the local and state jobs that women held were lost as the recession continued and stimulus money for manufacturing jobs disappeared.

The result is that the recession “showed us so clearly how women’s economic earnings are contributing to families across the country,” she says.

“Men were getting laid off first, but women caught up, unfortunately,” she says. “It became very clear women’s incomes were critical not only to keeping families afloat women were also the primary consumer decision-makers.”

That dual role as caregiver and wage earner is especially noticeable in the political arena, where women make up less than 20 percent of Congress and only a quarter of leaders at the state legislative level, says Ms. Walsh.

Women are still the primary caregivers, so when running for office, which is like taking a second or third-full time job, in some cases, “it is harder for women,” she says.

“We know women tend to wait and run when their children are older, which means their trajectory in politics may be shorter,” Ms. Walsh says. “I think you also have the issue of women — I think especially now — tend to run for office because they care about a policy issue. They want to get something done. They want to solve a problem.”

But there are positive signs within the realm of national politics.

While it’s never good to jump to conclusions, Ms. Walsh says speculation about Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “viable woman presidential candidate” is inevitable.

“I think it’s always a dangerous thing, being called inevitable,” she said. “Clearly [Mrs. Clinton] is the strongest candidate on the Democratic side.”

Ms. Maatz says she is seeing both parties taking women more seriously leading up to the fall and 2016 presidential races.

Two years ago the conversation was about the “war on women” and included “silly things coming out of mouths of certain politicians,” she says.

After two years, those comments and that war have caught the attention of women, and politicians understand how much midterm elections hinge on the female voice.

Ms. Maatz says it’s “interesting” that Republicans are embracing women’s issues and notes a women-driven agenda recently unveiled by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican.

“Republican women have said we need to be talking to women too. We as a party need to make sure that we have a plan. We can’t just cede them to Democrats or assume the message we’ve been using all along is working. Clearly it’s not,” Ms. Maatz says. “I want this to be on everybody’s mind. It does us no good when one party ignores us and the other takes us for granted. The fact they’re both paying attention to us, both fighting hard for us, is exactly where we want to be.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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