In the world of policy research in which I work, opportunities to discuss pop culture do not come about often. Luckily, the release of Beyoncé’s new music video for “Run the World (Girls),” has given me the chance to do so. The spirited chant-like refrain of the song repeats the question and answer: “Who run the world? Girls!” The hit new song has inspired commentary and feedback from many, some critical, some in praise. I believe that the diversity of the responses, is just another indicator of the multi-faceted nature of feminism, and so, I propose that we consider the following: perhaps the song should be interpreted and serve more as a call-to-arms than as an accurate depiction of the status of women today.
“Disrespect us no they won’t,” says Beyoncé of our male counterparts in the first stanza.
As much as I wish this were the case–that the growing presence and strength of women in the economy may help us receive the respect that we should have received in the first place–the statistics suggest otherwise. Sexual harassment and discrimination still run rampant, hindering progress in the effort for gender equity. In her survey of 900 women, street harassment expert Holly Kearl found that 99 percent of the women had experienced some form of street harassment. The recent class action suit brought against Wal-Mart by the company’s female employees exposed a culture of sexism, shocking those of us who believed that our society had grown beyond that.
Raising a strong fist into the air, along with her countless athletic back-up dancers, she sings,“Help me raise a glass for the college grads.” Graduation season has kicked off, and so, Beyoncé, I will join you in your toast to this year’s graduates.
Americans recently learned that women are more likely to graduate from college and hold graduate degrees than men. As education is often linked to higher earnings and better jobs, these trends in educational attainment are a good step in the fight to level the disparities between the sexes. However, it is not enough to eliminate the inequities and obstacles that continue to face women, including those among this year’s college graduates. A recent study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that upon graduation, women earn 17 percent less than their male counterparts. In 12 of the 14 college majors examined, men had higher starting salary offers than women.
The gender wage gap is just one of the challenges that women confront, and the NACE findings are only applicable to those students who are, in fact, able to complete their college degrees. For the 3.9 million student parents in undergraduate institutions, 71 percent of whom are women, earning a college degree is even more challenging, particularly in light of the fact that only five percent of the child care needs of undergraduate student parents is currently being met.
“Boy, you know you love it / how we’re smart enough to make these millions / Strong enough to bear the children then get back to business,” Beyoncé says in the second half of the song, kicking her stiletto boots in the air.
She’s got it right. More and more women are entering the labor force and facing the challenges of balancing employment and caregiving responsibilities, which fall disproportionately upon their shoulders. This is why family-friendly work policies are more important than ever. The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave to many working parents, ensuring some level of job security for mothers and fathers should they decide to take time off for a newborn. However, many families cannot afford to take unpaid leave, making the FMLA an inadequate solution to address this aspect of the work-family balance. The good news is that some employers are starting to get the hint. A fact sheet from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that 95 percent of the “100 Best Companies” identified in Working Mother magazine provide some length (at least 1 week) of paid maternal leave. The bad news is that much work remains to be done if the rest of the country is going to get anywhere near catching up to these model employers. In fact, only 10 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid parental leave.
Women are working more and getting more education, all while earning less and continuing to bear the bulk of family caregiving needs, and if you’re U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz or French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, you’re also taking over the Democratic National Committee or (possibly) the International Monetary Fund.
So, perhaps Beyoncé is right, maybe we’ll “run the world” some day.
But until policy and practice make more strides to address the diverse needs and societal issues that women face, the prospect of women and men as partners in society and the economy will remain elusive.