Archive for the ‘Sex Discrimination’ Category

It’s mid-January, and the holiday season is over; children are readjusting to the new semester, and adults are back to work. The lights and trees have been taken down, and malls are back to their normal number of shoppers. As I reflect on this past holiday season, particularly the craze surrounding popular items that the children in our lives request, I am baffled.

Photo by David Shankbone, Flickr Creative CommonsEvery year the same issue arises during my holiday shopping: I stroll down the aisles in search of a doll I can purchase for my 9-year-old niece, and each year I am disappointed with the options. This year my question remained the same: Where is the diversity? To justify my feminist mentality and sometimes too-frequent overthinking of certain matters, I searched “Barbie” on Google. How surprised was I at the results? Not at all. Before my eyes was a page full of white dolls, the majority scantily clad with long legs, small waists, and perfect smiles.

I have always had these issues with doll companies that gross billions of dollars a year and stack toy store shelves for little girls across the globe. Maybe my aversion is a reaction to stories my grandmother has told me, reliving her childhood of sexism and racism. Maybe it’s because of the sense of pride I feel as I look in the mirror at my brown skin every morning. Maybe it’s because I refuse to allow my niece to be socialized to think that pretty girls are only those who are skinny with light skin; long, straight hair; and skimpy clothing — and that women are meant to be mothers and wives instead of engineers and politicians. Maybe it is because of the political, social, economic, and physical attacks that women all over the world survive every day. Maybe it’s because of the grotesque portrayal of women in movies, television, and the media as sexualized beings who deserve little to no respect. Or maybe it’s because the feminist in me would like, for once, to walk down the toy aisle and find a Mexican, Asian, or black baby doll with ease — or a doll whose abilities aren’t limited to being fashionable.

So as I stared at my niece’s Christmas list this year, I skipped over the request for a doll. I challenge all parents and gift-givers to be cautious and aware of what toys you purchase for your children. Are you encouraging your children to follow certain paths in their lives by buying the boys construction toys and the girls toys that reinforce their stereotypical roles as caregivers? Are little girls being socialized to strive for an unobtainable physical ideal represented through popular culture? The answer is yes! From television advertisements to technology to the toys children play with, ideals are being reinforced in our children’s minds. It is time to take a stance and teach children that diversity is beautiful. Each person is unique, and that is what’s normal.

This post was written by National Student Advisory Council member Benita Robinson.

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Warning: The content of this post might trigger unpleasant memories for anyone who has experienced sexual assault.

Last summer in Steubenville, Ohio, two 16-year-old high school football players allegedly raped a teenage girl at a party. The two young men have been charged, and the case made national headlines after the New York Times published a detailed article in December about what happened and after the activist hacker group Anonymous posted a video of teenagers making jokes about the alleged rape.

There have been many passionate, important articles and opinion pieces written in response to this horrific incident. Over the weekend, more than 800 people held a peaceful protest calling for justice for the survivor.

What I want to add — since the alleged assailants, the bystanders, the survivor, and the young men cracking jokes about rape were all high school students — is that this should be a wake-up call to school officials and communities to address sexual harassment and sexual assault in their schools!

Crossing the Line coverIn 2011, I co-authored Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, AAUW’s national study of students in grades 7–12 that showed that sexual harassment is still a widespread problem. Nearly 60 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys said they had experienced sexual harassment during the previous year. One-third of girls and one-fourth of boys said they had witnessed sexual harassment.

Physical harassment was not uncommon either. During the school year studied, 4 percent of girls and 0.2 percent of boys reported having been forced to do something sexual, and 13 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys had been touched in an unwelcome sexual way.

Many students saw these experiences as “no big deal,” and sexual harassment was understood as “part of school life.” Only 9 percent of the harassed students felt comfortable reporting their experiences to anyone at school.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that many of the students who harass and assault at school also do so outside of school, including at parties like the one the alleged Steubenville rapists attended, because sexual abuse is normalized in our society and perpetrators rarely see anyone punished for their actions.

It’s also not a stretch to say that schools should do more to address sexual harassment.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools must inform students that sex discrimination — including sexual harassment — is prohibited, publicize a grievance policy, and have a trained Title IX coordinator available so students can easily report incidents.

After AAUW’s 2011 report was released, I gave numerous talks across the country. Many AAUW branches that invited me to speak tried to set up meetings with Title IX coordinators. But in location after location, they could not find a single Title IX coordinator, even in large cities with many school districts. In speaking with people who regularly work on Title IX issues, I learned that this scarcity is pretty common.

I spoke at several bullying conferences and events. I received mostly blank stares when I asked people — including teachers and school administrators — if they knew what Title IX was or if they knew the names of their Title IX coordinators. At each of these conferences, I was the only person who talked about sexual harassment.

It was worse when I worked with AAUW’s Campus Action Project (CAP) teams. Each year, AAUW grants up to $5,000 to fund grassroots projects that use the recommendations from AAUW’s latest research report. In 2011–12, seven CAP teams focused on the Crossing the Line recommendations. I was appalled when most of the teams faced roadblocks as they tried to carry out their very noncontroversial projects. The following is just one example.

When one team asked to have access to a few high school students to conduct a focus group and then work with them to create an informational poster campaign, the school at first agreed. Then, when it came time to set up the focus groups, the school cancelled, saying in an e-mail that the focus group was too “controversial in nature” and that the discussion of the students’ experiences might obligate the school to report or investigate the incident “as required by law.”

When school administrators have this kind of attitude and it is combined with a culture that trivializes sexual harassment and assault, is it any wonder that sexual harassment and assault are rampant in most schools? Is it any surprise that perpetrators at school may very well become perpetrators outside of school?

It is time for school administrators, teachers, parents, and community members to finally acknowledge that sexual harassment and sexual assault happen in our schools. It’s time to talk to students about it, follow Title IX guidance, and make preventing harassment and assault a priority!

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Photo credit: Dain Sandoval, "Normal St Costume Party," Flickr Creative CommonsMaybe I need to get out more. Or is it that I’m hanging with a boring crowd? Whatever the case, an innocent trip to the party store to purchase items for a baby shower led me to discover an entirely new opportunity to shake my head in disbelief, along with my 11-year-old daughter. There are so many offensive frontiers out there that I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when I stumble upon one. It certainly provides a teachable moment for whichever of my offspring happens to be with me. We discovered that Mrs. Claus isn’t who she used to be. She’s sexy. And so are elves. And winter wonderland vixens.

Everybody loves a good party, and costumes seem to be standard fare these days for holidays like Halloween (of course), which is apparently more lucrative for adult purchases than for children. Remember our Dialog blog about “Sexy” Rosie the Riveter? These days everything is made “sexy” or “hot” from tweens and up. As costumes go, there is also an apparently strong market for St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and other holiday costumes because for some reason adults need to dress up to celebrate them. (And that’s an entirely different blog post that needs to be written.) The overall theme is that women need to be scantily clad (oops, I mean “sexy”), while men are covered in armor or wool from head to toe. Santa sure isn’t baring any skin. I’m not against sexy, but why has it become the default for women and girls? Many studies document the negative impact of these kinds of images on girls.

So it wasn’t totally surprising as we perused the aisles of balloons, invitations, and candy to come upon the usual holiday costumes (reindeer antlers, elves, Santa suit) and find out that Mrs. Claus has a new attitude. She’s a babe. She’s Adult Sexy Lace-up Ms. Santa. Definitely not the one from storybooks. You know — ruffled white cap and red dress with an apron (on all the time, because apparently she spends a lot of time in the kitchen to keep Santa well-fed). The Adult Sexy Elf costume caught my eye as my daughter stood beside me with an expression that clearly showed her annoyance.

Later, at home, I checked out the retailer’s online site (where we buy totally innocuous items for birthday parties and other events), and it went downhill even further. There’s even a section with the Top 10 Sexy Santa Costumes for Women, including Adult Toyland Babe (“This sexy helper is really heating up the workshop!”), Adult Holiday Honey Elf (“All he wants for Christmas is his honey elf, dressed and prepped for the occasion!”), and Adult Sexy Foxy Frosti (“This snow fox will melt any icy heart!”) Even the basic Mrs. Claus costume can’t maintain her dignity with the online description “’Tis the season for matronly sex appeal … ” I am not making this up. I wish I were.

I haven’t seen a Sexy Mary costume yet — but unfortunately it’s probably only a matter of time.

My hope for 2013 — let girls be girls and “sexy” not precede the description for “elf.”

Happy holidays.

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It’s no secret that white men dominate the film industry — women make up only 5 percent of directors, and women of color are even more scarce. So it’s no wonder that the number and representations of women are warped, disappointing, and damaging. Since this tendency intersects with the often problematic onscreen portrayals of people of color, black women characters rarely anchor films. As a result, black women’s experiences are ignored and erased from our cultural memory — aside from the persistent tokens and stereotypes that so many lazy writers rely on.

Middle of Nowhere, which premiered in limited release last weekend, breaks with these Hollywood traditions. Written and directed by Ava DuVernay, the film earned buzz at Sundance, where it earned DuVernay the best director award — the first time a black woman has ever won that distinction. The film tells the story of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a smart, resilient nurse who puts her dreams of medical school on hold when her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is incarcerated for selling guns. Ruby prioritizes her marriage — making sure she has the time to be at home to receive his phone calls and to take the long bus ride to visit him each week — despite Derek’s and her mother’s protestations.  When, after four years of this, Derek’s parole eligibility is called into question, Ruby starts to emerge from the emotional stasis she has been in.

In the process of Ruby’s transformation, we see her complicated and heartbreaking relationship with Derek evolve without demonizing either character. The audience ends up deeply invested in a couple whom we only see together in flashback, in a prison visitor’s room where physical affection is verboten, and in the loneliest scenes you can imagine — where Ruby imagines her husband is with her as she wakes up in the morning or walks to the bus for her night shift.

We also see the difficulty of navigating the justice system when money is tight. And we get a glimpse of the family dynamics that oscillate between emotional support and tough love for Ruby, who has the potential to escape the economic hardship that her mother and sister experience.

Amazing acting, beautiful cinematography from Howard University film school graduate Bradford Young, and subdued colors make the events of Middle of Nowhere seem like they’re happening around the corner to your good friends. The mellow soundtrack and succinct dialogue alternate with punctuated silences that bring Ruby’s internal struggle between loyalty and frustration to a slow boil.

Audiences and critics have made Middle of Nowhere one of the most talked-about indie films of the year. And the new distribution model that is bringing the film to audiences nationwide could be fostering a 21st century LA Rebellion for black independent cinema. This is what happens when new voices have the opportunity to tell their own stories. In a film culture that doesn’t do much to foster black feminist filmmaking, audiences have to demand and support the rare films that address women’s issues or that feature underrepresented voices. Otherwise, we’re leaving our cultural imagery and narrative priorities to the fellas.

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On October 9, I had the honor of hearing Lilly Ledbetter speak on my campus, St. Cloud State University. Ledbetter’s story is an inspiring one. After 19 years of working at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Alabama as a production manager, a note was slipped into her mailbox revealing a startling pay gap between her and three male colleagues in the same position. Despite knowing that taking the corporation to court would be a long, uphill battle that would likely not lead to the compensation she was owed, she sued Goodyear. “It wasn’t about me anymore,” she said. “It was about my daughter, my granddaughter, and the women and families in this nation.” Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2007, after nine years of fighting, she received the final verdict. She lost because of an unreasonably short statute of limitations that would have required her to file suit years before she even knew she was being paid unfairly.

But her story did not end there. Ledbetter became the namesake for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The bill righted the wrong of the Supreme Court decision by allowing the statute of limitations to reset with every discriminatory paycheck.

As I sat in the audience listening to this strong woman share her story, two things happened to me. First, I was humbled by how much women in the past have achieved to guarantee me certain rights. Second, I was inspired to do the same for future generations of women. I think that my generation often does not take the time to learn about the influential women in our country’s history. I feel that young women believe the struggles of the past are over, when in fact they are far from complete. Even today, women’s median earnings are still only 77 percent of men’s, which accounts for huge losses in income, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits over a lifetime of work. But Ledbetter’s speech appeared to raise students’ awareness. Through the question-and-answer session following the speech, you could hear people expressing their outrage at what happened to her and their demand to change what is still occurring today.

St. Cloud State University has been making great strides to bring inspiring programming to young women. At the SCSU Women’s Center, where I work, we strive to empower women, increase awareness, and develop programming to support those principles on our campus. Our mission statement speaks to these ideals: “With passion and purpose to end sexist oppression, the Women’s Center promotes a safe, inclusive, and engaged community through advocacy, education, alliance-building, and women’s leadership.”

My hope is that by bringing speakers like Ledbetter to campus, our generation will have a greater appreciation for past struggles and those who fought them. I also hope that when someone from my generation is faced with a situation where she has to decide whether to stand up for herself, she will think like Ledbetter: “I knew that the only choice I had was to stand up for myself and do what was right. I understood the risk I was taking. It would surely be the hardest fight of my life, and there were no guarantees I’d win. … But as I ruminated, I realized I had no other choice.”

This post was written by Bre Moulder, a St. Cloud State University sophomore majoring in political science and women’s studies. St. Cloud State University is an AAUW college/university partner member.

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AAUW is proud to support National Coming Out Day and environments in which everyone is free from discrimination.  Read more about our commitment to the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) folks.

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“Eighteen years ago today, the landmark Violence against Women Act was signed into law. It was founded on the basic premise that every woman deserves to be safe from violence, and since its passage, we have made tremendous strides towards achieving that goal. But we still have much work to do.”
— Vice President Joe Biden, who drafted the original Violence against Women Act, on September 13, 2012

“Every minute this house chooses to delay the reauthorization of VAWA is another minute these women are victimized.”
Sen. Patty Murray, September 13, 2012

“There is no good reason that we can’t work together and see that #VAWA, a life-saving law, is reauthorized immediately.”
— Sen. Patrick Leahy, September 13, 2012 (@SenatorLeahy)

AAUW couldn’t agree more. The Violence against Women Act is due for reauthorization this year, but political maneuvering has stalled the bill in Congress. AAUW has long supported “freedom from violence and fear of violence in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.” Since its enactment in 1994, VAWA has saved lives and saved money. VAWA is credited with contributing to the dramatic increase in the reporting of domestic violence. The rate of homicide by an intimate partner has decreased by 65 percent for women and almost 50 percent for men since the statute was enacted.

AAUW is a strong supporter of the bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill passed by the Senate. The bill takes steps to make college campuses safer for women. When campus environments are hostile because of sexual harassment, assault, or violence, students cannot learn, and they miss out on true educational opportunities. AAUW’s own research revealed that two-thirds of college students experience sexual harassment. In addition, a 2007 campus sexual assault study [BH2] by the U.S. Department of Justice found that around 28 percent of women are targets of attempted or completed sexual assault while they are college students.

While AAUW supported the Senate’s VAWA reauthorization bill, we opposed the House’s bill because it did not contain necessary provisions to improve the safety of college campuses. Additionally, the House bill expressly rejects protections for men and women who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, making it difficult for them to find services in their communities. The House bill also eliminates strong protections for women and children who are beaten or abused on tribal lands by perpetrators who are not members of a particular tribe, and it removes a key requirement that would more easily allow victims to move from one subsidized housing program to another in order to avoid an abuser.

The Violence against Women Act should not be a political pawn in election-year gamesmanship. We urge the House to follow the bipartisan lead of the Senate and AAUW’s membership: Put aside the rhetoric, move quickly to pass the Senate version, and once again do the right thing for all victims of violence.

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Summer is waning and tax-free week is over, with the purchases of new sneakers, uniforms, and jeans all wrapped up. That can only mean one thing — the kids are going back to school! (Imagine fireworks, rainbows. and shooting stars about now — not that I am celebrating too exuberantly.) Perhaps the negative feedback from last year’s amazingly inappropriate t-shirts for girls paid off a bit — I managed to avoid seeing a large number of highly offensive images and messages. But I’m not saying they aren’t still out there.

In any case, we’ve filled our AAUW “backpack” with some awesome opportunities for girls and young women funded through our amazing Community Action Grants, programs that will

  • Serve low-income African immigrant survivors of domestic and gender-based violence with a combination of culturally and linguistically competent direct legal services, education, and advocacy
  • Inspire girls ages 6–18 to reach their full potential, encourage and educate possible future aviation professionals, and instill confidence, self-esteem, and determination
  • Provide high school Hispanic seniors and their mothers with help in college selection, the college application and financial aid processes, and transition issues
  • Encourage teen girls to find their voice in this world by exploring their talents through a digital storytelling project designed with the goal of promoting art, technology, leadership, and community connectivity
  • Expose school-age children to successful girls and women with disabilities and provide educational activities for developing skills to become advocates and allies for children with disabilities
  • Create a core training curriculum to build local and regional capacity to end the commercial sexual exploitation of indigenous girls
  • Increase girls’ self-confidence and literacy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with women enrolled in science undergraduate degree programs volunteering as mentor scientists
  • Engage middle school girls in computing and technology through a Saturday interactive technology series and weeklong summer program
  • Provide a comprehensive outdoor program for adolescent girls designed to inspire courage and leadership through summer expeditions, a leadership-focused summer camp, and rock-climbing programs
  • Develop the authentic voice and self-expression of teenage girls in underserved communities by training them to become citizen journalists, harnessing the power of new digital media to inspire self-esteem, community activism, and social change
  • Teach young, minority girls the fundamentals of savings and investment
  • Create an interaction between high school girls and young college women in STEM to build state-of-the-art computers for use at an emergency shelter for homeless women and families
  • Provide counseling and support services to women and teens that have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or childhood sexual abuse.
  • Develop middle school media literacy curriculum aimed at enhancing students’ understanding of how gender stereotypes in the media influence girls’ and boys’ perceptions, attitudes, goals, and practices and how these perceptions and attitudes negatively affect girls’ entry into STEM fields
  • Offer an environmental and cultural opportunities program for urban girls who do not have regular access to green spaces or to environmental education opportunities

What’s in your backpack this year? Are you reaching out to girls and young women in your community?

Find out more about AAUW’s Community Action Grants and our awesome opportunities for girls.

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In 1962, the prospect of working at NASA as the United States entered the space race would have been pure excitement for any young research scientist. Imagine the challenge of discovering the secrets of space travel!

For Charlotte George Smith, a job at NASA held the promise of fulfilling her childhood dream. Thanks to her undergraduate and graduate work in biological sciences at the University of Illinois, Smith was fascinated by the physiology of humans in space and eagerly anticipated the research projects awaiting her.

Cramming her belongings and her wheelchair into the family car, she set off toward Houston, unaware that she would have to wage tremendous battles against rampant sex and physical disability discrimination during her 26 years at NASA.

Stricken with polio at age 10, Smith was always tenacious and inquisitive, responding to challenges like a daredevil. She was unstoppable, even as she navigated herself around and over physical barriers. Supported in her intellectual pursuits by her family, she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in record time, developing a strong interest in the aerospace medical field and contributing to two papers on heat acclimation.

Always independent and resourceful, Smith settled into life in Houston, driving herself and her wheelchair in her hand-controlled car. She discovered early on that very few provisions were made for wheelchair accessibility in the NASA buildings, and despite repeated requests, the agency was persistently slow with accommodations. At one point, Smith resorted to hiking herself up and down stairs on her rear end to get to her office.

But the indignity that stung most was watching male colleagues being assigned scientific projects and then being promoted ahead of her. Meanwhile, she was given trivial and condescending tasks like typing, filing, logging mail, ordering library books, and answering the phone. She was the only woman seated in the secretarial pool who had a master’s degree in physiology.

Hired as a General Schedule 7 (GS refers to the pay scale for government employees), Smith was promoted to GS-9 then reduced to GS-5 due to “a reduction in force.” Male employees with identical qualifications were never reduced in classification — indeed, several had risen to GS-13. In 1971, Smith filed a complaint of sex and physical handicap discrimination before the Civil Service Commission but received no judgment impacting salary or job ranking. In 1975, a federal district court judge ruled that Smith had been denied opportunities for advancement due to her sex and handicap and ordered retroactive promotion with back pay. This decision was upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1977, and Smith took pride in pioneering the Americans with Disabilities Act a decade later.

Throughout all these years, Smith had traveled globally on her own for pleasure and professional development and became the first paraplegic woman to earn her small-engine pilot’s license.

After retiring from NASA in 1988, Smith moved to Maui, Hawaii, where she has served on the county Commission on Persons with Disabilities and the Statewide Independent Living Council of Hawaii. I met her at the AAUW Hawaii 2012 state convention and purchased a copy of her memoir, Race the Sun! Quietly confident and unassuming, Smith continues to seek new outlets for her adventurous mind.

This post was written by AAUW Vice President Patricia Fae Ho.

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U.S. Olympic weightlifter Sarah Robles almost could not afford to compete in the London Olympics despite her outstanding strength and impressive accomplishments — she is ranked higher than any other weightlifter in the United States, male or female. She had the skills, athletic excellence, and formal qualifications, but Robles says she had trouble finding sponsorships because of her body. “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini,” she says. “But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.” The two strongest women in America, Sarah Robles and fellow weightlifter Holley Mangold, were not offered the same sponsorships, positive media coverage, or treatment that thin women Olympians enjoy.

On her blog, Pretty Strong, Robles voices frustration over discrimination against her body in media coverage, sponsorship opportunities, and too-tight uniforms. Unfortunately, she is not the only female Olympian who faces cruel criticism about her body. British heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, Australian swimmer Leisel Jones, British weightlifter Zoe Smith, and the entire Brazilian women’s soccer team have also faced criticism for looking “unfit.” Newspapers and magazines have compared the athletes’ current bodies to how they used to look and polled readers about whether the women “looked fit enough” for the Olympics.

Irrelevant criticism of female Olympians’ weights and body shapes fuels a damaging myth that thinness is more important than fitness. This body-image obsession encourages girls to prioritize becoming ultra-skinny instead of healthy and fit, which is a primary barrier deterring girls’ participation in exercise and athletics, according to a study conducted by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. Regardless of what these Olympic women athletes look like — and many of the aforementioned women actually have washboard abs and defined muscles — all are amazing and successful athletes. Athletic women do not always appear skinny or ultra-thin because many sports require larger muscles for endurance and strength. Mangold emphasizes that “an athlete can come in any size,” and media focus on body appearance and shape rather than skill or ability is misleading.

Media criticism can harm the athletes as well as viewers. As noted by Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation Chief Executive Sue Tibballs, body criticisms “really add to the pressure on women athletes, many of whom already have a disordered attitude toward foods because they are in a controlled routine where weight is a key issue.” One in five Olympic-qualifying female athletes suffers from an eating disorder.

Showing emotional strength in addition to their physical strength, many female Olympians have gracefully and powerfully responded to cruel comments about their bodies. Weightlifter Smith says,“We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.”

Women had lots to celebrate during the 2012 Olympics — the “Women’s Games.” Women’s boxing debuted; for the first time ever, every country at the games sent female athletes; and American women won lots of gold medals. Though women made great strides in competition, they still faced inequity and discrimination in media coverage. With so much success to celebrate, news should focus on the athletic accomplishments and skills of our female athletes rather than their weights or body shapes.

This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Laura Dietrich.

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