I was born in 1973, at the tail end of feminism’s Second Wave. As a young girl, I was raised to believe that men and women were equal, and that being female wouldn’t hold me back in any way from achieving my goals. Reinforcing that message was the rise of female superheroes on television during that time: the Bionic Woman, Isis, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (I might be the only one who remembers them), and of course—my favorite—Wonder Woman. Young girls everywhere twirled in their living rooms with the belief that they could save the day.
Bolstered by that thought, the girls of Generation X charged through the 80s and 90s. We entered college and earned degrees at a faster rate then our male counterparts. We became breadwinner wives. We deferred having children, if we chose to at all. We were going to have it all.
Those hard-charging GenX women entering the workforce caused a fundamental shift in the American workplace. We continued the fight of second-wave feminists for equal pay, and narrowed the gap from 68% in the late 1970’s to 82% in the early 2000s. We pushed for better work/life integration so we could care for our families and still do great work. We were Wonder Women.
In nearly every superhero story arc, there is a moment where our hero (or she-ro) questions if they are making a difference, if they are truly capable, and thinks about hanging up the cape. Indeed, the swords and shields of Generation X women grew heavy. We were not having it all. We were just doing it all. Our optimism turned to disillusionment. But hey—we’re GenX. That’s our jam.
The late 90s and early 2000s gave us both the Mommy Wars and feminism’s Third Wave (two seemingly opposite reactions) as women struggled to reconcile their belief that women could do anything with the very real barriers that existed. Like an alien who derives great power from a yellow sun, or a woman borne of Zeus, it felt like humanity was not ready for our kind.
As the girls of GenX watched their she-roes on TV, Millennial girls (and boys) watched this play out in real life. Check out what’s happening down the generational line.
According to recent census data, overall college degree attainment is pretty even among women and men, at 30.2% and 29.9% respectively. But in the 25-34 age group, 37.5% of women have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 29.5% of men. In 2015, women earned 83% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. For adults ages 25 to 34, the 2015 wage gap is smaller. Women in this group earned 90 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned.
Generation X female business leaders continue to exert their influence on the modern workplace. Even its critics agree that Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In restarted a stalled conversation about women’s leadership in the workplace. Of the female CEOs of the S&P 500 in 2017, nearly one-quarter are GenX.
While this type of change isn’t faster than a speeding bullet, it is progress. No question that this is a long road and there is more to do. But our younger generations no longer have to rely on works of fiction to find role models who inspire them to greater heights. We’re right in front of them. (Although it would be cool to have some superpowers. C’mon.)