On gender equality in the United States: So much accomplished; so much more to do

“I like being a woman, even in a man’s world. After all, men can’t wear dresses, but we can wear the pants” – this quote by Whitney Houston posted, reposted and “liked” so many times in the recent past once again confirms that little has changed since the time the first female activists demanded equal rights. Without a doubt, women have made tremendous advances in the past decades: we vote, attend schools and universities, hold the same jobs as men do, live independently. The feminist movement has quieted down now that it seems like there is not anything women can’t do. The truth is, however, despite the equality we seem to have reached, the opportunities for women are still very limited.

According to the recent report released by Catalyst, women currently hold 3.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.0 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions. Another study published by Catalyst in August 2012 presents the percentage of women on boards worldwide – Japan occupies the very bottom with nearly 1 percent of female executives, while Norway is at the top having 40 percent of its top ranks held by women. The United States is three countries away from “exemplary” Norway at only 16 percent.

As Ann Bartel, the chair of the economics subdivision at Columbia Business School, points out, this data conceals the fact that in the New York region, where the majority of financial conglomerates are located, “there are no women in the executive roles.” In a recent article for The Atlantic Marie Lee, a former employee of Goldman Sachs, claims that women should not waste their time pursuing “something that would never be given to them, anyway.” In her view, women are doomed to fail in the company which buys its male employees trips to the gentlemen’s clubs. During her time at Goldman she was written up for not being “submissive” to her male colleagues and blamed for having no sense of humor when she spoke up against the email which introduced new female associates as Playboy Playmates. 

Unfortunately, sexist attitudes and stereotypes are not the only obstacles women face in the workplace today. The economic order of the past, which compelled women to stay home and work as household dependents through the denial of access to ownership, no longer exists, and yet child rearing and domestic labor are still considered to be a woman’s job. Women’s work at home is invisible for the economy that has been traditionally equating work with paid employment. It is apparent, however, that the so-called “social issues” are essential for increasing employment and productivity and must be factored back into the scope of the economy. The importance of such an adjustment could hardly be overstated: women tend to have more discontinuous employment due to childbirth and family responsibilities, they work fewer hours and earn less than men which results in smaller contributions toward their retirement funds and lower Social Security benefits.

Scandinavian societies did not leave the task of reducing the gender gap to the market forces: they realized that it was the state’s responsibility to adopt policies that enable both fathers and mothers to spend time out of work when needed in the home and provide subsidized daycare assistance. In this respect the United States are lagging far behind leaving the trouble of arranging childcare and running the household primarily to women.

The Scandinavian experience is also important because it provides evidence that stereotypes can be reversed. Anna Reimann of German’s Spiegel Online mentions the TV commercial popular in Norway in 1980’s in which a boy was asking his mother if men were allowed to become prime-minister – back then “female Social Democrat leader Gro Brundtland was running the country.” It is possible, too, for the “male-dominated” in Whitney Houston’s quote to be replaced with “female-dominated,” but I believe that the only part of it women should identify with is “I like being a woman.”

Norway introduced the gender quota in the workplace almost nine years ago, and the measure has worked quite well: currently a little over 40 percent of executive positions are occupied by women. Interestingly, gender equality was not the reason Norwegian government implemented the quota – the reform was an attempt to revive the national economy and combat inflation. In the United States the very topic of quotas makes many uncomfortable, so we choose to avoid facing the fact that it may be a crucial step towards changing behavior and reducing imbalances – both at work and at home.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Do we know if by adding more women to boards it improved the economy in Norway?

    Because it’s one thing to mandate more female representation (though this feels like pandering to me – if you get an exec job do you really want to wonder if you earned it or just got it because you have lady parts???) – but you need to define the benefits and assess the impact.

    E.g., if the mandate results in under qualified individuals getting board positions, which results in poorer performance by the company, then who cares if the male/female ratio was increased when you’ve just hurt the company and the economy – which are more important then achieving gender equality.

    Simply achieving so-called “equality” (though I’m not clear why equality = 50% in everything) is meaningless if it doesn’t result in equal or better results then our current situation.

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