Women’s History Month – Ordinary Women Need Not Apply

Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel. ~ Bella Abzug, 1977 (in above photo with New York Mayor Ed Koch and President Jimmy Carter, 1978)

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult,” said Charlotte Whitton in Canada Month, 1963.

I agree with Charlotte Whitton’s famous statement except for the part that it is not difficult! And to phrase the late, great Congresswoman Abzug’s statement more delicately, ordinary women should be able to compete with ordinary men for the same jobs without having to outperform at Einstein’s level. Women have always been and continue to be held to a different standard than men when vying for the same opportunities. That’s not only a lack of equality, it’s a lack of fairness.

This burden has been placed on the female of the species since the first woman got her foot in the door of the biggest men’s club in the world — the workplace — and ever since, as I mentioned in last week’s entry, women have been held to a different standard. They are in essence put on an invisible “woman’s track” that is separate and apart from a “man’s track”; instead of being straight like the man’s track, the woman’s track has twists and turns, obstacles to get around, sudden sharp dips and sometimes it curves around in a circle so that there is no beginning or end, just a continuous loop. Those who figure out how to break out of the woman’s track and slip onto the man’s track arrive at higher positions better educated, more experienced, wiser and more highly qualified than their male counterparts. Women are expected to play by different rules; they have to work longer and harder for less money and are held to that different — more rigid — standard.

And the killer is that even when a woman does attain that leadership position, she is likely to be paid only 80% of what she would be paid if she were a man.

Yet, society continues to accept this situation as the norm. The popular belief is that women have been viewed as unequal to men since the emergence of homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago, and existing even as recent as the hunter/gatherer era (C. 6800 – 1500 B.C.E.). But the concept of gender inequality apparently began in our “modern” times with the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, according to a study published last year by a team of researchers from University College London. It was then that the male of the species made his power grab, accumulating property and taking multiple wives to produce a large number of children and build wealth through property, possessions and crops.

Over the centuries male domination extended beyond agriculture to include supremacy in government, business, industry, the professions and, of course, the home front. At the end of the 19th century when women began entering the corporate and industrial workforce in serious numbers the struggle for gender equality began in earnest. Women became empowered by earning their own money, and that empowerment was viewed as a dangerous threat to society.

Yes, women have made great strides during the last 100 years in the workplace, but it wasn’t without a long struggle. Women won the right to earn and keep their own money, own property and vote in U.S. elections. But after all of that women still in 2016 cannot claim victory in securing workplace equality and fairness. Until women of average skill no longer have to prove themselves as Einstein clones in order to compete with men of average skill the workplace cannot be considered to be a level playing field.

Women Are Different From Men

As a woman who has spent roughly four decades in the corporate workplace spanning four industries — broadcasting, publishing, public relations and financial services — and the mother of a Millennial daughter, I have long seen the need for an overhaul of the workplace and am happy that certain sectors are waking up to this fact and calling for such change. Here are steps society must take if we are serious about equality for women:

Employers

  • Establish Woman-Friendly Policies: Women are different from men and the traditional workplace was set up centuries ago to accommodate the male worker. Yes, workplaces have changed over the decades to some degree; there are now employee restrooms for women that have actual toilets instead of urinals and that contain machines that sell feminine products. And nearly a century after women began working in offices, the 1990s ushered in flexible hours, job sharing, work-from-home arrangements and the Family Leave and Medical Act. But so much more needs to be done. Last year, U.N. Women, the arm of the United Nations that is dedicated to gender equality, issued a report entitled, Progress of the World’s Women 2015–2016. In it the point is made that “The idea of substantive equality recognizes that inequality can be structural and discrimination can be indirect; that we must go beyond creating equal opportunities, to ensure equal outcomes; and that ‘different treatment’ may be required to achieve real equality in practice.” That “different treatment” should include more flexibility and accommodations for pregnant women on the job, paid leave, on-site child care (or at least emergency child care) and adequate healthcare benefits.
  • Pay Women and Men Equally For The Same Jobs: This seems like a no brainer, but of course this is where the heart of the problem exists! Some employers claim to pay everyone equally, but those companies have other issues, such as Raytheon’s and Microsoft’s underemployment of women in technical and engineering positions and the extreme effort women must make to get ahead. Thus, a balance must occur among the percentage of women employed as well as equal opportunities and compensation.
  • Banish the Double Standard: If there must be a double standard for women it should be made fair by understanding and appreciating the differences in women’s management and leadership styles. It’s important not to make women feel lesser than men because they are different. And because women are different doesn’t mean they need to complete extra training and work to achieve equal footing with men.
  • Eliminate the “Pink-Collar Ghetto” Industries and Positions: Some industries and positions are considered to be the pink-collar ghetto because they are dominated by women who are paid lower wages than men who are in white-collar corporate or blue-collar manufacturing jobs. With the rise of the late 19th century industrial age women began working in low-paying factory jobs and later in offices as low-paid typists. Later, during WWII women entered professions previously occupied by men, such as factory work and nursing; many women enjoyed high pay until the War ended and the men came home to reclaim these high paying jobs. Women remained as nurses, teachers, secretaries, telephone operators, librarians, clerks and low-level factory technicians. Today, there are many jobs and industries that are dominated by women, who are paid less than men are in the fields that they dominate. It’s time to change that.
  • Don’t Just Promote Your Female “Stars”: Policies should cover all women, not just the outperformers. Just as ordinary male workers are promoted regularly, ordinary female workers should be similarly trained, developed and promoted. More than half of entry-level professional positions in the largest U.S. companies are filled by women, but McKinsey reports that according to Catalyst women “hold only 37 percent of middle-management positions, 28 percent of vice-president and senior-managerial roles, and 14 percent of seats on executive committees.” This would indicate that women are not being treated fairly and that those who do ascend to leadership positions have somehow navigated that “women’s track” I mentioned earlier. This, too, must change.

Men

There cannot be equality for women across the board until men step up and assume their fair share of family, domestic and personal responsibilities. Here are some steps to take:

  • Understand that Gender Equality Is A Man’s Issue: With more women contributing to the economics of the family and even becoming the family breadwinners, the ability of women to earn the same pay as men is crucial. And the more women earn the higher the family’s quality of life and opportunities and the better a couple’s retirement security. This cannot be achieved if women continue to be harassed, marginalized and burned out in the workforce. As well, men can benefit from equal support when they need it from women who are professionally fulfilled and happy.
  • Take On Equal Share of Household Responsibilities: The era of one half of the population being relegated to cooking and keeping house for the other half is over. And the era of superwomen who hold down jobs and assume fulltime responsibility for home and children must end. And each spouse or partner should support the other in his and/or her career or job pursuits. And that includes the job search, volunteering while applying for jobs, going on interviews and everything involved with jumpstarting or continuing professional pursuits. More men are becoming involved with caring for children and the home. This sharing can be an ongoing arrangement or periods when she and he take turns to allow each other to establish careers. And, it should be noted that work-life balance conflicts among couples are not limited to straight couples; gay and lesbian couples also experience them.
  • Assume An Active Role In Changing the Workplace: Millennial men are more willing than those of previous generations to share domestic responsibilities but are being thwarted by lagging workplace policies. It is imperative that men take an active role in demanding workplace flexibility that allows both men and women to pursue their careers and raise their families. Working with women, men can be a powerful force for workplace change. Voting for political candidates on the national, state and local levels that can help effect that change will help as well.

Government and Society

  • Ensure Equal Pay For Equal Work: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was a milestone in addressing unfairness in wages paid to women versus men and granting workers the leverage they need to achieve fair pay. However, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay Act, has been languishing in Congress for a few years. Both the President and Congress need to be fully committed to equal pay and other fairness practices in the workplace, not just part-way.
  • Appoint Women To The Executive Branch: We need to see more women in Cabinet and administrative and military positions, such as Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on the Supreme Court.

Until more women are serving at all levels of the federal, state and local governments the struggle for equality will continue.

Women

Ah, yes. It really does all come down to us. All the laws, company policies, the cooperation and support of men won’t — to use the words of Rick in Casablanca — “amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Women exist in great numbers, have formidable reserves of power and both durable and resilient inner resources. We need to harness and use them in the following ways:

  • Recognize and Admit The Problem: To my mind, denying that gender inequality exists to some degree in every facet of a woman’s life is akin to denying the historical fact of the Holocaust or the evidence of climate change. Gender discrimination throughout history has had its highly dramatic moments as well as its insidious march to our current times. But even with historical documentation and current evidence, many women deny that sexism exists. But it does, from shockingly overt to deceivingly covert circumstances. As one my heroes, Gloria Steinem, once said, “The truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off!”
  • Believe In Yourself – I realize that sounds like a cliché, but it’s a powerful mechanism to propel you forward. Stop worrying that you don’t have a degree from a top college, or don’t have a college degree at all; that you have weaknesses or holes in your resume; or you aren’t as cool or popular as some of your coworkers; or that you don’t have all of the qualifications for your dream job. Generally, men do not let such things stand in their way of advancement and neither should women. Emphasize your strengths and work to correct your weaknesses, and do so with courage and confidence, and be open to change and new ideas.
  • Learn How To Negotiate: Women can take matters into their own hands to help close the gender pay gap by negotiating a starting salary, compensation package, promotion salary and bonus/commission package or contract payments and fees. Courage and confidence, remember?
  • Support Other Women: I don’t mean just the stars that are most likely to succeed, I mean every woman, including the housekeeper who cleans the women’s restroom, the mail page, the woman who makes your sandwich in the cafeteria, the receptionist, executive assistant, middle manager, office manager, head of the service departments, department and division heads, the members of the executive suite and the lone woman on the board of directors. Because men dominate most workplaces women are often preoccupied with either pleasing them or competing against them and often view other women as distractions or competitors for that precious piece of token turf. Try seeing other women in a different light, as partners in your advancement plan whose success can be your success, if not today then tomorrow. And once a woman has knocked down a barrier for herself, it’s important not to throw it back up to block another woman; once that barrier is down, it should stay down!
  • Expect Support From Your Spouse Or Partner: Just as equal and fair treatment is expected at work it should be expected at home as well. That support can come on an ongoing basis or at designated times. You may take turns getting your respective careers off the ground, but you should work out a plan to share equally in domestic responsibilities so that you both can fulfill yourselves professionally. If children are involved, split child care coverage and when the children are old enough assign them household tasks so every family member can contribute to the health of the unit. Just like adults, children must learn to schedule their time to include school, personal tasks, extracurricular activities and recreation.
  • Vote For Candidates Who Support Equality: Whether you are conservative, progressive or moderate in your overall political views, you should make your voice heard so that you will have the representation you want in your state and in Washington D.C. I agree with those who believe that unless there are laws to protect women in the workplace it is unlikely that equality on any level will be achieved.

Changing the Workplace Perception of Women

Women face increasingly unreasonable expectations and crushing challenges in the workplace because of the stubborn perception of them as less capable beings than men. This is partly due to the misconception (no pun intended) that because women are the child bearers they are less adaptable, committed, responsible and dependable on the job than men are. Women need to address this myth that holds many women back. Women shouldn’t need to be superwomen in order to hold down a job, and they shouldn’t need to be wonder women in order to reach sought-after leadership positions.

When the ordinary woman has the same chance for advancement as the ordinary man that will be an extraordinary development.

I know we’ll get there! Meanwhile, a very happy International Women’s Day to all!

Until next time,

Jeanne

 

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