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When a young creative on this past season of the show Mad Men was fired for posting a sexually explicit drawing of the firm's office manager, many in the audience cheered. That he was fired by a young woman taking control of her career only made the moment sweeter. Moments later, this woman rode the elevator with the colleague whose honor she defended and sought her gratitude. Instead, the woman who had been harassed coldly explained, "You wanted to be a big shotBut no matter how powerful we get around here, all they have to do is draw another cartoon."

The line was a slap in the face, and a reminder that for most women, climbing ahead economically has often been a tale of two steps forward, one step back. In the current economic recession, much has been made of this being a "mancession," with men facing higher rates of unemployment than women due to the loss of jobs in male-heavy sectors like construction.

However, this chatter has obscured the reality that the 2009 U.S. Census figures show women are still making only 77 percent of men's income. For most women of color, the numbers are even more stark. White women make 75 percent of white male income, while African American women make around 62 percent, and Latinas make around 53 percent. Asian American women come closest to equal pay, at around 82 percent of white male income. Success -- woman are keeping their jobs in a frightening and unstable economic climate! -- is countered by the ongoing stagnation of pay scales and opportunities for good jobs for women, and stalled policies promoting work-family support.

The push-and-pull experienced by women as we move forward economically is truly enough to make us feel off-balance, both as individual women, and as part of a culture at large. And the mixed messages around women's progress are not only reflected in data on income. The Opportunity Agenda recently released a meta-analysis of existing public opinion research on a range of concerns related to gender and sexuality and notes the ambivalence of the American public to the progress women have made.

Since 1987, The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has measured the strength of conservative attitudes against an index of five social values. In the 2009 survey, a large majority of Americans disagree with the statement, "Women should return to their traditional roles in society." This finding is a positive one and shows progress in attitudes. However, on the issue of family and marriage, a similar percentage of Americans agree with the statement, "I have old fashioned values about family and marriage." There goes that balancing act again. Additionally, a 2007 Pew Research Center finds that 41 percent of Americans believe it "is a bad thing for society" when the mothers of young children work.

In 2008, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey examining American attitudes on gender (See Reproductive Justice: A Communications Overview), with a focus on eight "leadership traits": creative; outgoing; compassionate; ambitious; decisive; hardworking; intelligent; and honest. Women outscored or tied with men on all attributes except "decisive." Regardless, the survey found that a mere 6 percent think women make better political leaders, while 21 percent believe men are better leaders and 69 percent believe they are equally good. The researchers conducted a second survey, this time adding two more traits: emotional and manipulative. The findings were disheartening. Americans believe women are more emotional and manipulative than men -- in overwhelming numbers. Women themselves agreed with these assessments.

It is no wonder, then, that we are living in a climate in which so many women can succeed financially, and run for political office, but still be subject to smear campaigns based on their sexuality. The recent experience of Virginia political candidate Krystal Ball, who is being attacked by her opponent for "racy" photos taken in her early twenties, is a fascinating one. At least, in this case, Ball is fighting back against her opponent and the media pile-on, addressing the issue directly. She is taking on "this whole idea that female sexuality and serious work are incompatible," adding that "[s]ociety has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere."

Regardless of the outcome of her political race, efforts like Ball's are crucial. If she succeeds, the old two steps forward and one step back machinations will have been derailed, and her success will be simply one step forward, as it should be. And if she doesn't win Incidents like this one give us more fuel to end once and for all the negative stereotypes around sexuality and the role of women that affect earning power, leadership in public life, and society's commitment to policies promoting equal pay and support for families of all kinds.

October 18, 2010