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Natalie Portman Says Hollywood Is Letting Women Down and Other Notes from the Week

Catch up on all the news you might have missed with our handy summary of the week’s top stories.

We’re pleased to bring you “While You Were Out”—the Verily editors’ quick takes on the happenings of this week.

Fidel Castro Dies at 90

This week on November 25, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, whose roles as prime minister, president, and other leadership roles of Cuba spanned almost sixty years, died at the age of 90. World leaders immediately responded. In the United States, President Obama said in a statement, “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and the world around him.” President-elect Donald Trump’s statement had quite a different tone, calling Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades” and who was responsible for “firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty, and the denial of fundamental human rights.” While the president and the president-elect differed in their expressed views on Castro’s leadership, both expressed a desire to have good relations with Cuba, with Obama saying he offers “a hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and Trump saying he’ll do all he can “to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”

Perhaps the response that got the biggest reaction this week was that of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau who said Castro had "tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante,'" among other laudatory words. It turns out Trudeau’s father was friends with Castro, which colored his personal response. Numerous people responded on social media, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents left Cuba in the 1950s, who tweeted, "Is this a real statement or parody? Because if this is a real statement from the PM of Canada, it is shameful and embarrassing.” —Mary Rose Somarriba

Saudi Prince Says Women Should Be Allowed to Drive

Women may have got the right to vote in Saudi Arabia last year, but the country still has a very long way to go towards gender equality. As well as being late to the whole equal-right-to-vote thing, Saudi women are legally obliged to have permission from a "male guardian" to travel, work, go to school, or obtain medical treatment. And, oh yes, they're not allowed to drive. Women's rights activists have been protesting the driving ban for years without success, but on Wednesday Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal added his voice to their efforts, calling the law "unjust" and an "infringement on a woman's right." He also argued that it hurt the country's economy, because it made it more difficult for women to get to work. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women from driving. —Sophie Caldecott

College Freshman Doesn’t Mind Being Called “Period Girl,” Helps Women With Menstruation Needs

Nadya Okamoto is making sure that that time of the month isn’t any more miserable than it already is for women with limited means. Nadya, only 18-years-old and in her first year of college, is the mind behind Camions for Care. The nonprofit is responsible for delivering care packages of feminine hygiene products to women in need around the world. As a young teenager, Nadya and her family fell on hard times in which her mother lost her job and the family lost their home. During this time, Nadya says she met and chatted with many women in similar situations at the bus stop. She listened and sympathized as these women described the hardest part of living on limited means and without a place to call home, and they shared that not being able to afford pads and tampons was the hardest part. Since then, Nadya has made it her mission to prioritize menstrual hygiene around the world, “In the last two years, we have addressed over 31,000 periods through over 40 nonprofits and 23 states and 13 countries, and we now have about 60 campus chapters at universities and high schools around the United States and abroad.”

Now a freshman at Harvard, Nadya has attained the nickname “Period Girl” around campus. The nickname doesn’t bother her, though; she is proud of the work she has done so far. She maintains her devotion to making sure all women have access to feminine hygiene products saying, “No matter how many opportunities we create for female empowerment, it can’t be taken full advantage of unless we address menstrual hygiene.” —Katie Faley

Serena Williams Says How What Others Viewed as Flaws, She Used as Strengths

Serena Williams penned a powerful open letter addressed to “all incredible women who strive for excellence” in the December issue of Porter Magazine. In the letter, the world-renowned tennis player described her journey to the top, which started with 3-year-old Williams’ dream to be the best tennis player in the world, not the best “female” tennis player in the world.

“People call me one of the 'world’s greatest female athletes,' Williams wrote. “Do they say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes? Is Tiger? Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female. We should never let this go unchallenged. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender.”

Addressing the gender wage gap, Williams expressed frustration about the work and sacrifices made by women who receive less reward than men giving the same effort. Williams explained that “steadfast resilience” was the key to achieving her dream, and that embracing the disadvantages attached to her race and gender only served to fuel her success. For women striving for the same, the constant reminder that they are “not a man” must stop being presented as a flaw, according to Williams.

“We must continue to dream big,” she concluded, “and in doing so, we empower the next generation of women to be just as bold in their pursuits.” —Deanna Rosa

Women Are Closing the Math Gender Gap

A recent study released by Duke University debunked, once and for all, the myth that boys are inherently better than girls at math and science. While previous studies have suggested that males possess an intellectual advantage beginning during adolescence, the Duke University research credited this advantage not to intelligence, but rather, to “social and cultural factors” which promote gender prejudice and limit opportunities for women in the United States.

In fact, changes in the social climate in the last 35 years have allowed for a larger female presence in the STEM fields. When compared to data from the 1980s, the study’s findings reveal a “dramatic decline in male advantage in maths,” with women making up the difference, according to Dr. Makel, who headed the Duke University research. Women comprised only seven percent of top level math scores in the 1980s, but today, that number is up to 28 percent.

Makel continued, “This suggests that gaps in opportunities to develop talent between males and females have been closing. Any such rapid change in representation is almost assuredly explained by social and cultural factors.”

Statistics from countries in Asia and the Middle East, which show girls frequently outperforming boys in the maths, solidify the study’s claim of societal prejudice being the major factor limiting females in the field in the U.S.

“Historically, girls were seen as far less capable, so they had low expectations and were denied a full education,” explained Professor Joan Freeman, who concluded with a refreshing statement about the future of STEM: “Equal opportunities changed everything.” —DR

Natalie Portman Says Hollywood Is More Sexist Now Than in the Sixties

Natalie Portman is speaking out about the blatant sexism in modern day Hollywood. The actress portrays Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the upcoming biopic, Jackie, which tells the story of the tragic aftermath following the assassination of her husband, president John F. Kennedy. The actress is no stranger to Hollywood. Now at 35 with films, including an Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, under her belt, Natalie has claimed that Hollywood is more sexist now than it was in the 1960s.

Portman says that films and plots these days belong mainly to white men. She says that though there was definite sexism happening in Hollywood in the ‘60s, they "still have a central woman character who has a personality ... Now I feel like movies are all about white men and then you get a couple that happen to be about women." The actress even took a break from acting so she could step back from Hollywood, saying Tinsel Town is doing women a grave injustice. In order to combat this sexism and gain diversity in gender on the big screen, she believes that there need to be more stories focused around strong female characters. The actress is doing her part to destroy sexism in Hollywood. She has since been more conscious of the roles she has taken and projects she is involved in saying, "With the issues of gender discrimination in Hollywood right now, how could we not do that?" —KF

Muslim Woman Makes Statement in Burkini at Beauty Pageant

Somali-American Halima Aden made headlines last weekend at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. Since then, she has become not only the first Muslim woman in the contest, but she was also the first contestant ever to swap a bikini for a burkini. Newswoman Liz Sawyer captured the moment when Halima Aden proudly took stage and the announcer proclaim: “She’s making history tonight.” Nineteen-year-old Aden moved to the St. Cloud, MN when she was just 6 years old from a Kenyan refugee camp. By participating in the pageant in an unconventional way, she hopes it combats misconceptions about Islam. "I know so many women who stopped wearing the hijab because they were scared," Aden told Today. "I wanted to inspire Muslim women to challenge themselves." 

In a brief interview after the pageant, Aden opened up to CBS about how she feels about the opportunity. “For a really long time I thought being different was a negative thing. But as I grew older, I started to realize we are all born to stand out, nobody is born to blend in. How boring would this world be if everyone was the same?” —Mary Brodeur

Women Find That Remote Work Helps with Early Motherhood

An article this week reveals that virtual work is allowing new mothers the opportunity to advance in their careers during and after maternity leave. In Forbes, Kavi Guppta and Danielle Greason, a young mother of three who has been working remote for 6 years, described how “remote work presents new opportunities to redefine maternity leave for new mothers.” What they came up with included the opportunity that the time spent on maternity leave offers new moms to search out and pursue remote work opportunities, either just for the length of the maternity leave or for a possible new career path; there is a certain amount of schedule flexibility with remote work that can allow mothers to adjust and work around raising a family; and women can acquire new skills that can be transferred to their line of work or are in-demand. It’s promising to know that women don’t have to compromise the personal fulfillment of raising a family and that of having a career. —KF

World’s Oldest Person Is 117

The oldest woman alive celebrated her birthday this week—and she’s an amazing 117 years young. Emma Martina Luigia Morano of Vercelli, Italy, is the last living woman or man to have been born in the nineteenth century. The Guinness World Records confirmed through research that she is indeed the oldest person living. (The oldest living man, Israel Kristal, turned 113 in September.) Ms. Morano is just five years shy of being the oldest woman of all time. (Frenchwoman Jeanne Louise Calment lived until she was 122 years and 164 days.)

Ms. Morano has lived quite a full life. She was one of the oldest in a family of eight and was engaged to be married to a man who served in the First World War, but he never returned. She suffered the loss of her 6-month-old child and endured an abusive marriage for many years. But perhaps one of the most extraordinary facts about Ms. Morano is her diet that’s sustained her all of these years: fresh Italian pasta, a dish of raw meat, and three eggs a day—two of which she eats raw.

Of her age achievement, the head of records for GWR stated: “The oldest living person record category continues to capture the world’s collective imagination. Ms. Morano has experienced things firsthand that will soon be consigned to memory and the record books. She can teach us all a lesson of the value of a life well lived.” —MB

Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton Pair Up on The Voice to Sing ‘Jolene’ with Pentatonix

In one of the most delightful happenings of the week, Dolly Parton teamed up with Miley Cyrus and the a cappella group Pentatonix for an extraordinary performance of “Jolene” on The Voice. Pentatonix recently recorded a rendition of Parton’s hit song, and Cyrus had covered the song in 2014. But what many people didn’t know until now is that Parton is Cyrus’ godmother. I have to say, watching them sing together, I couldn’t help but think that a turn back to her roots (and away from gimmicks) certainly makes Cyrus’ talent shine all the brighter. —MRS