Women Are Still Paid Crap, and What We Need to Do About It

Most of us are not actually trapped in a Normal Rockwell painting; a mother is the primary or co-breadwinner in six out of 10 U.S. families.

Nov 19, 2012 at 11:30am | Leave a comment

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It would be lovely if the delusional pundits who insist that the gender wage gap is a myth were correct. (We also wish that ocean levels weren't rising, people could easily teleport to work, and Hogwarts was real. We have a lot of dreams.) Sorry, blustery self-satisfied old dudes: women still aren't getting paid and promoted in equal measure. A few recent studies and proposals, although imperfect, at least acknowledge that concrete steps need to be taken around the globe.

A new Catalyst study of 1,660 MBA grads worldwide found that men land business projects that offer twice the budget and three times the staff as those led by women. This relates to general exposure, too — 35 percent of men said they experienced "high visibility" in their field, as opposed to 25 percent of women. Thus, as Bloomberg's Diane Brady puts it, "women's careers can get stalled by lesser projects that aren't even on the CEO's radar screen."

The report leaves a lot of questions unanswered — it doesn't differentiate by industry, geography, or demographics, or go into whether some women choose smaller projects due to family obligations or lack of self-confidence/support — but Brady's takeaway is noteworthy:

What Catalyst's latest poll of this group does prove is the fact that nothing trumps experience on the job. Coaching and lactation rooms are great. But if leaders aren't putting their high-potential women in mission-critical roles that come with high risk and hefty budgets, they're not serious about their commitment. Instead of boosting programs that nurture top women, smart leaders should look at whether they're truly offering assignments that help women stretch.

But how can you get women into top positions if you don't "nurture" them? The European Union has an idea that (trigger warning!) might literally make some Tea Partiers explode: make them. The EU proposed a new rule today that would require non-executive boards of publicly traded companies with over 250 staff members to have a certain percentage of women on their boards — the target would be 40 percent by 2020 — or suffer unspecified penalties.

According to the Commission, women currently account for fewer than 15 percent of those positions, so it's exciting that the EU wants to develop a (relatively) quick action plan to get more women on board. But some countries, including Britain, the Netherlands, and Malta, don't like the idea of punishing companies that don't adhere to the proposed rule that "Priority shall be given to the candidate of the under-represented sex if that candidate is equally qualified as the candidate of the other sex" — at least not at the EU level. According to Reuters, Britain is being extremely pissy about the proposal. "We have consistently argued that measures are best considered at national level," a government spokesperson said. The number of women on the boards of British-listed companies rose to 12.5 percent in 2010 from 7 percent in 1999; perhaps Britain thinks its doing just fine on its own?

Still, compare that slow climb to that of women executives in Norway (not a member of the EU), a country which mandated a 40 percent quota for non-executive boardrooms in 2003 — companies that didn't comply were threatened with liquidation — and reached that target in 2009. That sounds like progress. According to Reuters, "many" high-powered women resent quotas because they "give the impression that women have not been promoted on merit." We get that fear in theory, but given the alternative (no/few ladies), is that really a worthy enough reason not to follow Norway's example?

Then, there's another new study by the Inter-American Development Bank, which found that Latin America's gender wage gap fell from 22 percent in 1992 to 17 percent — one percentage point better than the disparity rate in the United States. That's great and all, but things should be moving along more quickly, especially given that Latin American women are more educated than men.

Hugo Ñopo, the report's author, said there are two major reasons why Latin American women earn less. We bet you can guess: women are still seen as domestic caretakers and therefore expected to take care of hard and uncompensated household and childcare duties, which leads to more women working part time because they need the flexibility, which leads to fewer women being promoted. Also, women are more likely to look for jobs in the social sciences, which aren't paid as well as those in science or engineering.

Ñopo's report focuses on reforming the education system, since "the gap between men and women starts at a young age and can be found within the educational system of a country," based on standardized tests that measure 15-year-olds' math, science, and reading performances. "Latin America is the area in the world where gender disparities are the worst." he said. But the only example given in the Univision story is that "In early education, for example, Latin America has invested in enrolling more students in classes." We're all for education reform in general, obviously, but if more Latin American women attain higher levels of education than men, how will "enrolling more students in classes" help?

The problem with these studies and proposals is that they touch upon but don't actually tackle cultural stereotypes and longstanding economic structures, both of which operate on the basis that one parent (guess which one) will take care of domestic duties while the other brings home the cash. The idiots who argue that the wage gap is bullshit claim that women choose low-profile jobs so they can stay home with their families. But most of us are not actually trapped in a Normal Rockwell painting; a mother is the primary or co-breadwinner in six out of ten U.S. families.

In order to actually achieve gender equality in the workplace, we have to reconsider our concept of the nuclear family. Hopefully we're closer to reaching that goal than figuring out how to teleport to work or wish Hogwarts into existence. Do we need the government to step in and make that happen more quickly? Maybe.

Reprinted with permission from Jezebel.

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