"What Women Want"

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"What Women Want"

Deborah Rhode’s book examines social, economic, political reforms for gender equality

by Pam Miracle on Monday, March 30, 2015 - 4:19pm

The phrase “what women want” calls to mind fluffy Hollywood movies and a recent segment of the popular TV quiz show, “Jeopardy,” which perpetuated the idea that “what women want” is help with the housework, jeans that fit and a cup of herbal tea. What happened to equal pay? Equal representation? Protection against domestic violence and rape? Reproductive rights?

Deborah Rhodes speakingIn her new book, What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women's Movement, Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and Director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, looks at the social, economic, and political reforms still needed to achieve the equality women really want, and explores the role of law as a vehicle for social change. Rhode spoke about her book at a lecture sponsored by the Stanford Faculty Women's Forum.

Rhode entered Yale in 1970, one of 250 women in the university’s second class of women undergraduates. Influenced by what she calls an “unusually gendered college experience,” Rhode developed an interest in the women’s movement that led to a legal career. She became the second woman on Stanford’s law faculty, where she introduced the university’s first class on gender and the law. Today, she is one of the country’s leading scholars in the fields of legal ethics and gender, law and public policy.

The “no problem” problem

Despite progress achieved through the women’s movement, Rhode explains, “women still fare worse than men on virtually every major dimension of social status, financial well-being, and physical safety.” However, there is a lack of consensus that a problem continues to exist, and furthering the agenda is often not seen as a priority. 

Why? One factor may be the image of the women’s movement. While the majority of women polled proclaim to be “feminists,” they are conflicted by the reality of supporting women’s causes versus the negative image of the militant woman popularized in the media. This image extends itself to both the public and private sectors, where successful women are frequently viewed as difficult to work with or abrasive compared to their male counterparts, who are viewed as assertive and demonstrating leadership qualities.

The fact that advances have indeed been made may in part explain what appears to be a stalled women’s movement. Yet, issues that should motivate women, such as equality in employment, are ripe for reform. Rhode spoke about some of the areas where progress still needs to be made and why the law does not always have an impact.

Workplace inequalities

Statistics indicate that women in the workplace are predominantly confined to lower-earning professions, and that even in similar occupations, they earn roughly 77 percent of what men earn. In part, this gap may be explained by a lack of urgency on the part of women, or a lack of confidence in their own ability to advance to leadership positions, especially where leadership traits are more commonly associated with men. Additionally, the public image of women who fight the system is unflattering.

Women don’t always recognize they are victims. Moreover, they don’t always challenge the laws, especially when the cost of legal action is high and the probability of winning low. Some inequalities, like the wage gap, result from unconscious bias. Implicit bias training and efforts to raise awareness are needed to help rectify this.

Corporate work/family policies in the U.S. continue to lag behind those of other countries. For example, the U.S. ranks among the lowest countries in the developed world in terms of maternity benefits. We are 15 years behind the E.U. in offering paid parental leave.

Finally, women often work in lower-earning professions that are unregulated, such as housework, childcare and elder care. There has been some change, in terms of men taking on more domestic responsibilities, but women still bear the brunt of the work, which locks them in stay-at-home, frequently unpaid and unprotected roles.

What Women Want book cover

Sexual violence

Initiatives to deal with domestic violence demand better support and strategies. The U.S. has the highest rate of domestic violence in the developed world, affecting 25 percent of women. 

The U.S. also has the second highest incidence of reported rape in the developed world. One in five American women have reported rape or attempted rapes. The current movement to raise awareness of rape on campus is a good example of how women can and should take control of their own agenda.


Discrimination based on appearance is perhaps the area where women have made the least progress.

In the U.S., we spend $40 billion annually on diets alone. How much do looks really matter? Ninety percent of women surveyed considered appearance important to their self-image, and a third considered it more important than job performance or intelligence. This undue emphasis on appearance is particularly problematic for young women. But the cost goes far beyond the financial outlay. It reinforces unhealthy negative stereotypes and double standards for both men and women.

How can we improve?

One of the foremost ways to revitalize the women’s movement is to get more women in legislative positions, according to Rhode. The U.S. is seventh in the world in terms of women in political office. While women here are less likely to run for office, they should be encouraged to do so, added Rhode, and we should support them and their initiatives with our votes and campaign contributions.

Legislative reform is not the only solution, however. The law is a blunt instrument, not always an effective tool. Complex issues like promoting gender equality require a many-tiered approach, from grassroots efforts to coalitions and organizational change. 

Rhode closed her talk with a call to action and quote from William Allen White, the American newspaper editor, politician, author and a leader of the Progressive movement in the early 1900s: “My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” It still holds true today.


Pam Miracle is currently an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her communications leadership spans more than 20 years in international communications and public relations with direct work experience in the United States, Europe and Asia. She has expertise in creating internal and external communications programs that effectively bridge cultural and geographical boundaries and in developing and...