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March 10, 2010Back in 2005, I received a flurry of interview requests concerning Laura Bush’s selection of Cristeta Comerford as White House executive chef—a first for a woman.

Yes, it’s an achievement, I noted, but I was not surprised she got the job. I was amazed that it had taken more than 200 years for a woman to land this top culinary position!

And what’s worse, the buzz surrounding Comerford’s appointment as head chef eclipsed news about George W. Bush’s plan to replace Sandra Day O’Connor with a male Supreme Court Justice. “Out of the courtroom and into the kitchen,” I thought at the time.

Kathryn Bigelow’s best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker reminded me of the Comerford episode. Bigelow rightfully earned a spot in the annals of female firsts for her gripping film about men at war. (Another irony, perhaps?) But it’s 2010. We shouldn’t be surprised that a woman has actually won the top honor in this category. We should be shocked that it has taken 82 years for it to happen!

Let’s not get distracted by the narrative of female firsts. After all, firsts only go so far.

In 1917, Kate Gleason became the first woman president of a national bank, 50 years later Muriel Siebert became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and in 1972 Katherine Graham became the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. These are all important firsts—but women are still nowhere near half of Fortune 500 CEOs, executive officers, or board members in the United States today.

The same is true for women in the film industry. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film produces a wealth of information about the so-called celluloid ceiling. Its latest report found that in 2009:

- Women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films, a decline of 3 percentage points from 2001 and a figure unchanged from 2008.

- Women accounted for 7% of directors, a decrease of 2 percentage points from 2008 and a figure even with the rate in 1987.

This data reminds me that an overemphasis on the importance of “being first” can distract us from what’s really important. In the case of women and work, it can obscure the deep inequities that still exist.