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The State of Women: Progress is Relative by Caroline Simard, Vice President of Research and Executive Programs

I don’t know about you, but I’m confused. There has been a lot of media attention on research on women’s issues recently (most notably in Time Magazine, covered again on NPR’s Talk of the Nation), which is a great thing, considering that only two generations ago women didn’t factor in research agendas.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m confused. There has been a lot of media attention on research on women’s issues recently (most notably in Time Magazine, covered again on NPR’s Talk of the Nation), which is a great thing, considering that only two generations ago women didn’t factor in research agendas.

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However, as I read all the coverage, I am getting some serious mixed messages:

 

          Women have made it! They will outnumber men in the workforce by the end of the year, a statistic widely reported in the news! Time Magazine finds that 60% of men believe there are no longer barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace. So, finally, parity has been reached! …. But wait, women still earn 77 cents on the dollar and are all but absent from the executive suite. Oops.

 

          Attitudes have changed! Time reported that 89% of men are comfortable with women earning more money than men in the household. And, 76% say that it’s a positive trend that women are half the workforce. Hurray! Wait a minute… 65% view the fact that children are bring raised with no stay-at-home-parent has negative impacts on society, and 57% of men say it’s better for the family if the father works and the mother takes care of the kids. What? Are we saying that it’s great that women are in the workforce as long as they aren’t mothers?

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          Gender roles and stereotypes are gone! Women are astronauts, truck drivers, doctors, lawyers, politicians… you name it, we have done it, and we are not bound by gender stereotypical roles of nurturing and cleaning. Yay! Equality and freedom has been reached! Oh wait… 70% of women still report bearing the brunt of child rearing and household chores, and only 26% of women can claim a 50/50 split in household responsibilities. The NYTimes published a piece recently highlighting the myth of “choice” for women  when it comes to having a career and a family (http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/the-opt-out-myth/ink).

 

          OK, so it’s not perfect. But we finally have it all! Surely we are happier? Not. It turns out study after study shows women’s happiness has been steadily declining since the 1970s.

 

So which is it? Have we made real progress or not? Like most complex social issues, the answer is, it’s relative.

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When I interviewed scored of technical women for ABI’s research, I heard from the more senior ones that things have significantly improved – say, the overt hostility and sexual harassment that they had to go through at the beginning of their careers are no longer rampant in today’s environment. On the other hand, progress seems at times tenuous and painfully slow –  in 2007, we had 25 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In 2008, we were down to 12. It seems like the numbers are still so small that it’s all too easy to turn back progress.

 

The answer to the question of whether things are looking up for women is an issue I struggle with, both as a researcher of women’s issues and as a mother. The research tells me that deeply rooted stereotypical assumptions and inequality in organizations and society at large still exist. But the mother in me wants to agree with my daughter, who at 12 years old insists on telling me that “things are equal now” and that I don’t need to focus my work on this issue anymore. Wouldn’t it be great if I could look at her and say “you are right, by the time you grow up you won’t get paid less than your male colleagues, you will have the same chances for advancement, and you won’t feel guilty for having a career and a family. I want to.  

 

I would love to hear your thoughts on how far the issue of gender equality has come, and what remaining barriers you see in the workplace and in society in general. Is gender equality fact or fiction? Comment here, or email me at info@anitaborg.org

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