December 31, 2013
By Megan Beyer
It was the refrain of my childhood: ”Who do you think you are?” One of six children raised Catholic in the 60s and 70s, I heard it from nuns in nursery school, proctors on the playground, and parents at the dinner table.
This was not a gender thing. We were just kids: low man on the totem pole. If anyone was going to do the chores -- clear the table, empty the dishwasher, pick up the trash, or make the sandwiches -- it was the kids.
It was logical. We were not paying the bills, driving the carpools, or provisioning the house. This was an equal opportunity hierarchy with asymmetries that would work themselves out when we inherited the top spots sometime in adulthood.
Only instead, we produced a generation of children who do not buy in to hierarchies. They do not need to wait to be special -- they started out that way. And because they have this different perspective, when it does come to gender, they are more amazed than anyone at how poorly women are represented at the top of our economy and government.
If you look at how long American women have had the right to vote, how long since the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and how long so many women have been in the workforce, our lack of success at the very top is breathtaking. Only four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women – and only 16 % of corporate board members are women. At a time when all the data show gender diverse leadership renders more profit, the lack of gender equality at the top of companies defies logic.
Illogical, but not inexplicable. Many explanations are rooted in culture. Our generation was indoctrinated into a pecking order. We served, and we waited, and one day we would be made “special.” But all that being-put-in-our-place may have affected us more than we know. The high-flying success stories of women in our generation are spectacular but small in number. In our middle age, younger women urge us to lean in.
Millennials? They tell us to strap it on. This is the generation Barney built. The Barney and Friends show was the brainchild of a baby boomer mother. It features a big purple dinosaur character with a nurturing message that resonated with other baby boomer parents obsessed with self esteem. It was a huge success in the late 90’s answering “who do you think you are?” with a resounding “You are Special!”. With every television episode, we indoctrinated a generation with egalitarian zeal.
The Barney song was the anthem of their generation. Along with my girls I sang ideas completely foreign to the five–year-old me:
You are special, you're the only one
You're the only one like you
There isn't another in the whole wide world
Who can do the things you do
Because you're special, special
Everyone is special
“Everyone is special.” That’s the lyric that just might break the glass ceiling. This generation gets that something is wrong here. If everyone is special, then why are only half of us represented at the top? It flies in the face of what they know about the world.
Back in the “who do you think you are?” day, we all grew up knowing we were not so special. But girls knew it went deeper than that. We knew that even once we grew up, the truly special adventures and opportunities were primarily a man’s domain. We did not see ourselves achieving the top status because women were pretty invisible at the top—and even the middle-- back then. We knew adulthood would be an initiation into the top level of the hierarchy, but we also understood men would generally have more opportunities and more status than women.
Our children – my girls- have an ample array of women who have made it to the highest rungs of the ladder. While some disparage this generation for being “entitled,” I see it another way. They are the first generation of American women who believe they have a legitimate claim to the whole array of opportunities society and the economy offer. Entitled? You bet.
It is no wonder this “you are special” generation is quick to identify inequity and does not take it quietly. Witness the class action suit brought by young corporate interns. They fundamentally see themselves and their future differently than we did. They believe themselves to be equally deserving of opportunities in a way our generation could not.
Somehow with “who do you think you are?” still ringing in our ears, we managed to produce a “special” generation free of our undermining hierarchy paradigm. Self worth is their birthright. And while there are times I wish they would just empty the dishwasher, if they will finally break the glass ceiling, that will be enough.