It's 2016. What's with all the sexism?

Brother: Ivanka too strong for harassment
eric trump ivanka trump too strong sexual harassement _00004416

    JUST WATCHED

    Brother: Ivanka too strong for harassment

MUST WATCH

Brother: Ivanka too strong for harassment 01:42

Story highlights

  • Recent incidents involving Eric Trump, others, reveal realities of gender inequality and harassment
  • A study finds female athletes in Rio may be more likely to be described in terms of their appearance

(CNN)It's 2016. A woman is running for president, athletes like Serena Williams are household names and pop culture is replete with feminist heroines our foremothers could only dream of.

We've got Beyoncé and Rey and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Barb from "Stranger Things!"
    Yes, generally speaking, it's a pretty good time to be a woman.
    However, the last week has seen some worrying episodes. A son of a presidential candidate, and others, questioned the legitimacy of sexual harassment in the workplace. A powerful executive dismissed gender inequality in his male-dominated industry. Conversations around the upcoming Olympic Games have revealed a fundamental difference in the way we talk about men and women athletes.
    Wait ... it IS 2016, isn't it?
    Thanks to social media and a growing understanding of women's issues, there is less tolerance in our society these days for sexism and regressive comments. When someone steps out of line, they are more likely to get called out -- on Twitter, if not in person. But wouldn't it be nice if such guerrilla justice wasn't necessary?

    Trumping sexual harassment

    Former Fox anchor breaks silence on Roger Ailes
    Former Fox anchor breaks silence on Roger Ailes

      JUST WATCHED

      Former Fox anchor breaks silence on Roger Ailes

    MUST WATCH

    Former Fox anchor breaks silence on Roger Ailes 04:26
    Let's take the case of Gretchen Carlson. The TV personality left her post at Fox News in July and filed a suit against the network's CEO, Roger Ailes, alleging sexual harassment. Though ideally none of this should have happened at all, Ailes stepped down weeks later and Carlson received public support for her actions.
    But it didn't take long for this relatively positive development to devolve.
    A few weeks after Ailes' resignation, Eric Trump, son of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, said his sister Ivanka is immune to the problem of sexual harassment because she is a "strong, powerful woman."
    "I don't think she would allow herself to be subject to that," he told CBS's Charlie Rose on Tuesday morning.
    The younger Trump was roundly criticized for his comment, which to many implied that women who bring complaints of sexual harassment, like Carlson and countless others without such a public platform, are somehow weak.
    The elder Trump then doubled down on the sentiment, telling USA Today's Kirsten Powers that, were Ivanka harassed at work, "I would like to think that she would find another career or find another company if that was the case."
    In response to Eric Trump's comments, Megyn Kelly, a Fox News presenter and former colleague of Carlson, could only muster a "sigh" on Twitter. Her brief comment was condemnation enough -- both dismissive and exhausted, as if to say, "Damn. I can't believe this is still happening."

    'We've never had that problem'

    On July 29, Business Insider published an interview with Kevin Roberts, chairman of global ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. In it, Roberts seemed dismissive of the gender inequality within the ad industry, where only 11.5% of agencies' creative directors are women.
    "I can't talk about sexual discrimination because we've never had that problem, thank goodness," he said, adding that he doesn't spend "any time" considering gender issues in his company. He also posed the theory that women occupy fewer leadership roles because they "reach a certain point in their careers" and choose happiness over corporate-ladder success.
    The response was swift and severe. Women in the advertising field begged to differ with Roberts' opinions. Within a day of the interview's publication, he was asked to take a leave of absence. A few days later, he announced plans to resign.
    Again, it's a sequence that could have been avoided if these problems had been discussed head-on and not pushed aside as old news.

    Athletes and image

    It's no secret these incidents threaten to undermine complex gender issues and diminish the accomplishments of both women and men who work to ensure more equal and just working environments. The question is, how much weight do these episodes really hold?
    A recent study about sports and gender released by the United Kingdom's Cambridge University Press has revealed an illuminating answer.
    According to the study, female athletes are far more likely to be described in relation to their appearance, age or marital status. In other words, we tend to care more about (or outlets tend more to report on) a female athlete's particular hairstyle or relationship than their actual accomplishments. With the Olympics set to start Friday, the findings were particularly timely.
    The first inclination is to tack these findings on to the grayscale mood board of challenges that still face successful women. However, journalist and broadcaster Elizabeth Ammon tells CNN the conclusion may not be as grim. Ammon suggested that female athletes may be more interested in funding and coverage of their respective sports than how they are being portrayed in the media.

    Change, not just words

    So what does all this mean for women facing discrimination and mistreatment?
    For one, that real change is more important than words. Carlson's actions led to huge changes within her former company, while the words of her doubters served as an ineffective distraction. Roberts' refusal to tackle the real challenges of his industry cost him his job.
    At times it feels like Megyn Kelly's Twitter "sigh" is the only appropriate response to these regressive workplace politics. But the reality is that these actions, and reactions, are making such incidents less acceptable and more rare.