byRomy Newmanon Jun 14, 2016

Gender Equality in the Workplace: We are Not There Yet

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Today, I’m thrilled to be among the 5,000 delegates from across the world gathering at the United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C. (live-stream link here) – a meeting convened to talk about how we can create better representation and outcomes for women in all aspects of life ranging from economic empowerment to violence against women to workplace issues. As cofounder and president of Fairygodboss, an online forum for workplace issues specifically for women, these are issues close to my heart. Fairygodboss is devoted to improving the workplace for women.

When we started Fairygodboss in 2015, we got a lot of questions – from friends, from prospects, from investors, from family. “Who is your audience?” “What is your mission statement?” “How will you make money?” “Why did you choose the name Fairygodboss?”

But the most important question came from a surprising source: my mother. When I told her about the site and what we were trying to do, she asked, “Why is Fairygodboss still necessary?” In other words, “Hasn’t your generation figured out the inequality-in-the-workplace thing by now?"

She’ll hate the immodesty, but my mother, Pamela Newman, is a legend. Still hard at work at age 68, she has been one of the top revenue producers for Aon, a large global insurance brokerage, for 25 years running. She began her career in 1973 as a Management Consultant at Peat Marwick. Already one of a small number of women with a doctorate (she earned a Ph.D in Communications from the University of Michigan) she became part of an infinitesimally tiny group who also had a professional position. At her first job interview, she was told that she’d go far as long as she didn’t get pregnant. Which of course she did -- with me -- shortly after being hired. In the days before FMLA (The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993), she was back at her desk just three weeks after giving birth. While reading a recent New York Times conversation with Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was reminded that when my mother first arrived in New York, she would have been unable to rent an apartment or open a bank account without a signature from her father or her husband.

But despite all the advances we’ve made, the answer to my mother’s question is that we still need a site like Fairygodboss, and we have a ways to go. Every day, the women we built Fairygodboss for experience pay inequity, biased evaluation, and even overt harassment.

As we were doing research to build our company, we conducted conversations with dozens of women across America. It is clear from their experiences that significant progress is still needed. But for many, those challenges are not always obvious - not even to a trailblazer like my mother - so it seems worth articulating them here.

1) The Wage Gap

According to U.S. Census data, women in the US make 78 cents for every dollar that a man earns. Yes, that’s better than when my mom started out (it was 59 cents then) but the US still ranks 74th in gender wage equality among 145 nations, down from 65th place last year. According to the World Economic Forum, it’s going to take another 118 years for the global wage gap to close – just in time for my granddaughter’s granddaughter to start looking for a job.

2) Continuing discrimination in evaluation and promotion

Women’s accomplishments at work tend to be evaluated and perceived differently. New research from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research found that “managers are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong, and their accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of team, rather than individual, efforts.”

In 2011 McKinsey & Co.’s Joanna Barsh (a Fairygodboss advisor) found that women are often promoted based on performance while men are often promoted based on potential. In other words, Stephen gets the promotion because he seems like the kind of guy who can do the job, while Stephanie has to actually demonstrate excellence at all the components of the job before management feels comfortable promoting her.

3) Not enough women in leadership roles

According to the Center for American Progress, women now hold 52% of all professional-level jobs. And yet very few of them make their way to the top of the ladder. More than 45% of legal associates are female, but men are four times more likely to make partner. Women account for 78% of the labor force in health care and social assistance, but only 15% of the industry’s executive officers and 12% percent of its directors. The percentage of female CEOs in healthcare is zero.

In government, women hold 20% of Senate seats and 18.5% of House seats. America’s 50 states have just five female governors.

Indeed, one of the main themes that has emerged in our research for Fairygodboss is that women in management roles feel a tremendous sense of isolation as they advance in their careers. On any journey up the corporate ladder, it helps tremendously to have allies, mentors and role models. Yet without more women in leadership positions, the rest of us lack those role models -- and can end up in a vicious cycle of wage depression and early exit from the workforce.

4) A lack of affordable quality childcare

As a recent article in Quartz points out, “the lack of affordable day care may be the real reason that the glass ceiling exists.” In 30 states plus the District of Columbia, average annual daycare costs exceed in-state tuition at a 4-year college.  In other words, the cost of daycare is such a high hurdle that many working mothers drop out of the workforce because they simply can’t afford to continue working.  

5) The “always-on” workplace culture

Many studies agree that the vast majority of Americans now work far longer than the 40-hour standard. In addition, technology – which was meant to help make work more efficient – has added a late-night second shift for many professional employees. Because women traditionally have borne greater responsibility for housework and childcare duties, longer work hours harm them disproportionately. Even barring those gender norms, someone has to make it home to the kids, and that’s usually the lesser earner (more often the woman – due to the wage gap). Combine that with a dissolving barrier between work and home life and, as Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a recent New York Times piece,  “far too many [women] discover that what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-family balance can no longer be sustained — regardless of ambition, confidence or even a partner who shares tasks equally.”

6) Inferior Paid Maternity Leave Programs

I raise this topic last but it is possibly one of the most important, and has one of the most concrete and actionable remedies. Here are two things you probably don’t about paid maternity leave in America:

  1. The US is the only developed economy in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Let’s put that in context: out of 185 countries measured by the International Labour Organization, the U.S. is one of only three, along with Oman and Papua New Guinea, that don’t require employers to pay employees who have recently delivered a child.

  2. As a result, just 12% of US workers have access to paid maternity leave through their employers.

Thankfully, there are a few companies out there who are addressing this issue. Barclays, Netflix, Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify have all recently made headlines by improving their paid maternity leave policies. Salesforce has recently undertaken a complete audit of compensation across its workforce, and is spending $3 million to close the gender pay gap. Microsoft is requiring employees to undergo diversity training to reduce unconscious bias. Google, Facebook and Dow Chemical (among others) have stepped up efforts to increase the number of women and minorities on their payrolls. SAS has been lauded for years for its exemplary on-site daycare program, which not only helps women but helps SAS attract talent. The company also encourages its employees to work no more than 37.5 hours a week, and makes a point to employ enough workers so that people aren’t routinely forced to work long hours.

The topic of women in the workplace has also surfaced as a major point of discussion for the 2016 elections. Since this is the first U.S. election ever in which a woman has become the presumptive nominee of a major political party, it seems like as good a time as ever to shed light on the issue so that we can all see a path to enhanced equality and the economic rewards that accompany it. And those rewards are pretty huge. According to some estimates, improving women’s participation in the workforce could enhance the world’s GDP by approximately $12 trillion dollars by 2025.

So to answer my mother’s question, why does Fairygodboss exist? Because there is still room for improvement. We hope that open, transparent discussion from both employees and companies will accelerate the cause of gender diversity and help divine a roadmap for execution. And, we look forward to participating in that discussion at The United State of Women this week.

Do you have opinions about whether women are making progress in the workplace and what could continue to make a difference? Join the conversation in our community and share your perspectives with other women in the workplace!


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