Women: Have Come a Long Way, Yet Falling Behind While Getting Ahead

by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research –
switchboard operators2My daughter is 8 years old. I would love to give her—and my older son, who benefits as well—a world in which she is unquestionably equal, safe from being viewed/treated as an object, and valued for her real contributions to the world.

The data tells us we are getting closer. Throughout the world, girls are going to school in numbers nearly equal to those of boys. The wage gap in industrialized nations shrinks further, year by year. In the United States, women now outnumber men in terms of payroll, as seen here. Perhaps the best news: Men increasingly are okay with it all. According to a Pew Research report, more men are marrying women who are better educated and who earn more money.

But we still don’t have it right, do we?

Here’s the irony: Even when women get ahead, they fall behind.

The Social Price of Success

womanexecTake education, for example. At all levels, girl attendees are passing boys. In college, women have held a lead for a little while now—since 2007, 57 percent of U.S. college enrollees have been women. This academic gain comes at a social price. Women compete for dates and boyfriends, and when it comes to dating, men call the shots. As illustrated in this New York Times article a “hook up” culture, unsafe and unsatisfactory for women, has become prevalent on college campuses.

How many high-powered corporate women find themselves faced with a similar problem decades later in their lives? How many of them do not marry, or sacrifice their marriages for their careers? The single lives of the Supreme Court’s most recent appointees has generated speculation about women in senior roles in government. In her brilliant autobiography, Madeleine Albright speculates that perhaps she could not have become the first female Secretary of State had not her husband divorced her. How many other women have paid a painful price to claim positions of stature in their jobs?

That Stubborn Wage Gap

Generally speaking, although plenty of women are working, and the gap in wages is closing, it nonetheless still exists. Estimates vary, with a recent chart by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development setting the gap at 19 percent for the United States. The gap persists because of persistent challenges: among them, women are clustered in roles and industries that traditionally pay less. (Question: Do they pay less in and of themselves, or because the jobs are predominantly held by women?)

That’s the tip of the iceberg for working women in the United States. When women have children, roughly a third of them, per this Forbes article off-ramp, sometimes for more than two years, to care for their newborns. The two-year job loss, often at the beginning of a woman’s peak earning power, translates into reduced wages and responsibilities for the remainder of her career. Further, many who want to return to work (40%, according to Forbes) could not find full-time employment.

Flexibility Not Cure-All

For those that can find work, caring for children becomes the glaring issue. Employers increasingly offer flexible schedules, but truly sufficient work-life flexibility still can be difficult to come by.  Sure, the picture is changing. But as argued in this New York Times article, employers can view workers who also are caregivers as people who are, by definition, less committed to their jobs, and thus less deserving of promotions, pay increases, increased responsibilities. Asking for more flexibility might simply reinforce the stereotype.

Even when the flexibility is there, the child care may not be. When the economy flounders, working women—particularly single mothers—must hang on to both their jobs and their child care. But as this New York Times story illustrates, child care can be increasingly hard to come by. After all, isn’t this scenario the root of the feminization of poverty in America?

Indeed, when it comes to “having it all,” the equation can be made to work for financially successful women, but is burdensome for women who struggle economically. As this story illustrates, college-educated women are better positioned to attract men with good financial prospects. They might earn an income sufficient to let them outsource tasks such as house cleaning, lawn maintenance, and related work. They can afford high-quality child care. They are in a better position to take time off from their careers (even if that time does involve a relative financial penalty). Less educated women have few to none of these advantages.

Women’s Gain Equals Men’s Loss?

Even more troubling for women, from a bigger-picture standpoint, is that women’s economic gains historically have come at a cost to men. More women than men are working in the United States—but why? The article above points to a study showing women are more likely to be employed in countries where they traditionally earn less than men. And the reverse is true: They are less often employed in countries where their salaries are closer to that of men. Today in the United States, women are edging out men because they are cheaper. As already noted, they tend to be clustered in lower-paying roles and industries. When the economy rebounds, will men resoundingly reclaim their majority in the workforce?

Where does all this leave us? Are American women as close to workforce equality as they can expect to get? Is earning 80% of what a man makes, while still being able to have a home and family, good enough? Certainly it’s better than 60%. Perhaps women have done as much as they can by approaching the structural elements of the problem. Changing the structure of the working world has gotten us close. The underlying cultural and social change always has been harder.

So, much as I want to give my daughter a more equal world, I suspect it falls to her, and her generation, to get there. Millennials, and those behind them, seem to bring with them their own culture, a more tolerant, gender-, color-, and sexual-preference-blind point of view that might be just what we need.


Andrés Tapia is a Senior Partner at Korn/Ferry International, a premier global provider of talent management solutions. Previously he served as President of Diversity Best Practices, the preeminent diversity and inclusion thinktank and consultancy. Prior to Diversity Best Practices, he served as Hewitt’s Chief Diversity Officer and Emerging Workforce Solutions Leader. As a published writer and prominent speaker, Andrés offers thought-provoking views about diversity’s impact around the world. He is the author of The Inclusion Paradox – 2nd Edition: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity. Find his bio here.



One Response to “Women: Have Come a Long Way, Yet Falling Behind While Getting Ahead”
  1. cultureguru says:

    What would be wonderful is a paradigm shift–Women’s success is still gauged by how it compares to men. So, while you work with your daughter on building a vibrant, successful young woman, I’ll work with my son on embracing and valuing different communication styles and gender parity in the workplace and beyond!

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