If we’re to believe the warnings from the media, the war on women is raging right outside our doors, and it’s worse than ever. But the media (on both sides, of course) has advertising space to sell and ratings to consider, so where are we really in regard to women’s equality, especially for working mothers? Women are being threatened from all directions— Republican representatives in Virginia, Oklahoma, and Mississippi are passing bills that severely diminish women’s reproductive rights, political commentators and talk show personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Riley, and Keith Olbermann are making heinous, ugly comments about women in the spotlight—even other females are participating, like lobbyist Hilary Rosen dogging stay at home mom Ann Romney for not “working” a day in her life.
The truth is, women in the United States have it better now than we’ve ever had, at least by comparison to what things were like 100 years ago (or even just a few decades back). The obvious problem, of course, is that this is the perspective through which we’re viewing this issue in the first place, that our equality is not simply a given.
Current IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has proven two things with her recent job appointment at the Fortune 500 company:
1) That women are continuing to be taken seriously in the workforce and are landing executive-level management positions in large, successful corporations, and
2) that it still doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being considered as equal to our male colleagues. The Augusta National Golf Club, which traditionally has off ered membership to IBM’s CEO in return for their sponsorship, denied Rometty membership aft er she started her new position at the beginning of this year and will remain male-only, a literal Good Ol’ Boys club.
Rometty’s appointment does say something good about women being viewed as executive material (and why shouldn’t we be?), but according to Fortune magazine, as of 2011, only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies had female chief executives. Compared to how things looked in 1972, when the fi rst woman was granted that title (Katherine Graham at Th e Washington Post), this number is certainly an improvement. But looking at it from the other end, why are only twelve executives of those 500 companies women? Why isn’t it closer to half? How are we missing the mark on equality by more than 200?
According to the Department of Labor, “Today, women earn about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men—a gap that results in the loss of about $380,000 over a woman's career. For African-American women and Latinas, the pay gap is even greater.” Unfortunately, there are absolutely still many men who hold on to old stereotypes and stigmas and who believe that women are an inferior gender, which interferes with females being appointed to high-ranking positions of employment at a commensurate rate and with commensurate pay and benefits as their male counterparts. A lack of aggressiveness in pursuing opportunities for advancement or higher pay may contribute to a lack of equality for some women as well.
Many women, however, lack equal opportunities for other reasons. One is that, despite a considerable increase in co-parenting over the last several decades, females are still typically the primary caretakers of children. In fact, one study from the University of California found that over the last 15 years, women have nearly doubled the amount of time they spend directly caring for their children, bringing the total to just over 21 hours each week. Many are able to do this quite successfully while managing a demanding, high-stress career, yet female employees with children are seen as more high-risk than men with families, and this means that they’re more likely to be passed over for promotions or denied positions that give them greater possibilities for advancement.
Th e Guardian reported in February of last year that “partnered women without dependent children earn 9% less than men on average, but for mothers working full-time who have two children, the pay gap with men in the same situation is 21.6%.” It also means that some women are more likely not to pursue those positions in the first place, either because they feel they lack the resources or support to care for small children and fulfill their job responsibilities, or because, even if they can, their bosses refuse to believe it. In that same report, Th e Guardian found in a survey that 73% of female managers felt barriers to advancement still existed in the workplace, compared with only 38% of their male colleagues.
It would seem, then, that in the U.S. women in the workplace are almost automatically viewed as less capable as soon as they become pregnant. Th is mentality is exemplified in our country’s approach to maternity support. Canada and Sweden off er more than a year of paid maternity leave to mothers (and, in Sweden, also to fathers) to be at home with their newborns. Australia off ers a year of job-protected leave. As reported in a study done by Harvard and McGill Universities, the U.S. is one of only three of 181 developed countries that does not off er federally-funded maternity leave. Th is frequently forces women to choose between a job and a family rather than smartly aiding in the facilitation of balancing both, sharing parenting responsibilities with their partners while still developing a meaningful career. In turn, many employers instead miss out on the impressive contributions female employees have to offer.
Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, had this to say to The Guardian about the idea of the glass ceiling for working moms: “Mothers are faced with impossible choices. To find jobs that are compatible with childcare, they have to make major compromises, trading down their careers so that they can meet their children’s needs. The challenge now for government is to support mothers to maintain their position in the workforce and achieve the family life that they want.”
Statistics from the Department of Labor indicate that women currently make up just over 46% of the workforce, with the top three jobs held being the traditionally female-dominated professions of administrative assistant, nurse, and elementary/secondary school teacher. Happily, management positions (at least first line management) did make the top ten list for women, coming in at number eight. It would seem, then, that men are still the ones mostly taking management positions, and they are indeed holding more of them. Th e Department of Labor reports that management jobs ranked at numbers two and three of the list of the top ten jobs held by males in 2010. (It seems important to note, however, that numbers one and four on that list were truck driving and janitorial positions.)
So how do we shatter that glass ceiling? In part, we’re already on our way: In recent years, men have taken a far more active role in parenting and household responsibilities, which makes the family/career balance easier for women. Boston College’s Center for Work and Family recently polled 1,000 professional fathers from Fortune 500 and found that “today’s dads associate being a good father just as much with the role of effective caregiver as the traditional role of ‘breadwinner.’ These men want to be engaged parents and successful professionals.” Women want that as well. Employers can contribute to this by equally considering females for executive-level management positions, offering management training programs and other resources, providing better maternity (and paternity) benefits, or incorporating family-focused perks into the workplace, such as on-sight childcare, to allow female employees with children greater opportunities to balance both careers and motherhood.
KIRSTEN CLODFELTER holds an MFA in fiction from George Mason University and teaches English Composition at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has been published most recently in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Avery, and I Am Modern.