September 29, 2011

One Small Step For Women And Men

Despite improvements, women still experience gender inequity in the workplace. However, the ultimate top dog in the US is taking a stance!

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When comparing a woman’s career opportunities in the 1960’s to her options today, simply put, she has more—more opportunity to get hired, more opportunity for promotion, more opportunity for earning potential, etc. I think that is progress! But when we compare women of today to men of today, women are still falling short. Today, there are more women who earn both bachelors and master’s degrees compared to their male counter parts and women and men are about equal in terms of the number of PhD’s earned. Furthermore, women in the 20’s tend to out-earn men in their 20’s because of women’s greater educational achievements. Compare that to the 1970’s when a woman with a college degree, working full time, year round, earned less than a white male high school graduate. Now the tables have turned and women are earning more because they have higher qualifications.

Not so fast

But when we compare women in top positions in the US, they fall short and when we compare women on average, they still earn less than their male counterparts. Although progress has certainly been made when we compare women of today to women of 50 years ago, that darn glass ceiling is still ever present and weighing us down. In 2007, Catalyst (an organization started in 1962 to help women enter the workplace) issued a report on the attitudes of more than 1,200 senior executives in the US and Europe regarding female employees. The report, titled: The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, stated that women who “act assertively, focus on work tasks, display ambition,” or engage in other behaviors, that, if performed by a man, would receive high praise, were perceived as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

This sparked my interest because, just the other day I watched a re-run of a Law & Order episode in which a young, female, CEO of a large company in New York was on trial for murder. Whether she committed the murder or not was unclear (which is of course the point of the suspenseful television drama), but at the heart of the case and a cause for strife between legendary Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy and Connie Rubirosa, the female Assistant District Attorney, was the CEO’s gender and the fact that McCoy put her gender on trial. As a way to discredit the CEO, McCoy brought in several male witnesses to testify that the CEO was vindictive and cruel. The men had been fired by the CEO for things like talking to the press (even though it was made clear in the episode that the company had a gag order which legally forbid employees from talking to the press). In the end, the CEO ended up wanting to take a plea, not because she was guilty, as she professed, but because she stated that her decisions and actions were going to be scrutinized because she is a woman and she was going to be demonized by the jury because of her gender. She stated that her actions were just and if a male had conducted himself in this way, people would have seen him as a strong leader, as opposed to cold and heartless, which the viewer could gather the jury perceived her as.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

This episode highlights the very point made in the report. Women currently face this unspoken dilemma—to appear strong and assertive, make important, yet difficult decisions and choices, and ask for what you think you justly deserve, is seen as inappropriate or unfeminine. But if a woman does not do that, then she is criticized for not being a good leader. Furthermore, women may not engage in such behavior because they know how it will be perceived and want to avoid the negative label or perhaps because they have been taught that to behave in such a way is inappropriate for a woman. In fact, financial guru, Suze Orman spends a significant portion of her book entitled, Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny, educating women that not only is it okay to, but in fact women should be, speaking up for themselves in the work place because not doing so is the number one reason women get paid less than men. Furthermore, not doing so makes it all that much harder for the younger generations of women coming up. It perpetuates the precedent that women are second class, should avoid rocking the boat, and should put other’s (men’s) needs ahead of their own in the work place and beyond.

But we still need help from the majority

I admit that women need to take initiative and do things that make us feel uncomfortable. For example, we need to negotiate our salaries and stand up for ourselves when we think we deserve a promotion or respect. And if we are not getting it in a job, we need to be prepared to walk and tell others why we are walking—air out the dirty laundry rather than just leave quietly because we are afraid of the repercussions. However, the responsibility can’t be just with women. Women still need someone on the inside, helping us break into the boy’s club. According to a CNN article, Professor Stephanie Coontz was present in 1971 during a negotiation between two top political organizations. During the meeting she witnessed the female leader’s opinions and statements constantly being ignored by both sides. In fact, when the men did acknowledge the female leader’s statements, they often gave credit to other males for things that she had said and the men getting the credit did not make an effort to correct the mistakes.

Today, we can see that women are making statements and being heard in politics. For example, Hillary Clinton was a very close contender for the White House and now a very powerful Secretary of State and Michele Bachmann is currently making a serious campaign effort for Commander and Chief. Yet, according to Coontz, 40 years after she witnessed the event where the female political leader was being silenced, women’s voices are still being ignored in the White House as “senior female aides complained that male colleagues ignored them, excluded them from key policy meetings, dismissed their opinions, and limited their access to the president.” However, when President Obama heard about these issues, he set up a meeting with the female staff to discuss their concerns and push toward creating a more inclusive environment. Other political issues aside, I commend the President for this courageous act. I think it is very easy for men to sit by and let women’s voices get ignored. It is more difficult, instead, to sit up and say—this is not right and ask what can I do to change it? Such institutional sexism is certainly not going to change overnight, but with an ally like Mr. Obama, leader of the most powerful country in the world, on our side, I think we are making headway.