For several decades now, we have been witnessing tremendous energy and momentum towards the betterment of women’s lives. Sexual stereotypes that long served as accepted wisdom have been debated, deconstructed, and dismantled.
The range of careers available to women steadily has expanded, however, and today they are found in professions and positions that would have been unthinkable a generation ago–at the front lines of battlefields and among the strategists of both major parties’ presidential campaigns. With greater options in education, many women have satisfying careers and higher pay (Heffernan 2004).
Females remain, however, a long way from equality in the workplace. Men still cover the rent with their own paychecks far more easily than women can. Nor has there been any significant expansion in the ranks of women as political office holders. In fact, the U.S. record on this score is abysmal. According to the International Parliamentary Union, which provides data on the proportion of women in national legislative bodies, America ranks 58th in women’s political leadership worldwide, tied with Andorra.
The Czech Republic, Sierra Leone, Latvia, and Portugal are among the countries ahead of the U.S (Glover et al 2002).
Many Americans want to believe that equality for women no longer is an issue. They tend to ignore major evidence to the contrary–even the overwhelming percentage of men in Congress or the fact that, while it is a record to date, only eight women currently serve as governors. (The number stands at 26 female governors through the nation’s entire history). It is interesting to note that political leaders and observers, male and female alike, continually assert that a woman will be president in their lifetime. Perhaps these people have great expectations about how long they will live, because the fact is that 20 years have passed since Geraldine Ferraro became the first–and still only–woman on the national presidential ticket. Since that time, only two women have run for the nomination of either party–Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun–both of whom faced great difficulty raising financial and other support (Cohen et al 1998).
The first step toward addressing the problem of women’s place in the worlds of work and politics is admitting that a problem exists. The second step is agreeing that it is a serious and consequential one. Those who do not take the gender gap issue lightly tend to begin by arguing that having more women in leadership positions will have a significant impact on the institutions of society. This is an unfortunate strategy and deflects attention from the fact that no one ever feels the need to present reasons for men to be leaders. It is taken for granted, and this must come to be the same for women. Women are half of the world’s population. They have an equal right–and responsibility–to attain important leadership roles (Borkowski & Ugras 1998).
This is not to say that there are no gender-related differences in how women and men go about the business of work and politics. However, let the questions be asked more evenhandedly. It also should be clear which differences can be documented, taking care to note their level of statistical significance. For example, research in political science seems to indicate that women and men tend to behave similarly in the role of head of state. On the other hand, the sexual composition of a legislative body does seem to make a difference in what kind of issues get dealt with. The greater the proportion of women, the more likely greater attention will be paid to health care, child welfare, family policies, and the needs of women–or, put another way, the greater the preponderance of men, the greater the likelihood that these issues will get short shrift. The most parsimonious explanation for this is that women and men, statistically speaking, have had differing life experiences (Glover et al 2002).
The choice of whether to emphasize gender differences or similarities will affect proposed strategies for achieving sexual equity. Let’s leave that aside for a moment, though. Unless the cadre of women who serve at all levels of government is expanded, they cannot be expected to rise to the highest political offices. Until they become far more numerous in positions such as mayor, governor, and senator, women are not going to have a decent shot at the presidency. If females cannot move from middle to upper management in corporations, they will not be able to wield real authority. Unless women assume important leadership roles in the major institutions of society, those institutions are unlikely to reflect whatever special interests females may have (Cohen et al 1998).
The work-family issue
The biggest obstacle to greater participation of women in leadership positions in society is the continuing failure to address the work-family issue. Low-end jobs pay so poorly that parents, men as well as women, often have to work at more than one. The Ozzie-and-Harriet days of the “family wage” are long over. Single mothers form a major share of the working poor. Fewer women have the luxury of staying at home with their children, even if that is their preference. Without a system of affordable and reliable child care, women barely can hold it together in the jobs they have, much less seek to advance (Heffernan 2004).
At the high end, meanwhile, positions that carry large rewards also carry large responsibilities; they have a tendency to consume all available time, and then some. It is not uncommon to hear about high-achieving women who are burned out by the experience, sick and tired of dealing with the sexism that still flourishes in the corridors of power, and frustrated at not being able to have a personal life. With relatively few exceptions, these women do without the kind of support their male colleagues get from wives willing to inhabit the traditional role of the corporate or political spouse (Cohen et al 1998).
Consequently, there are stories about women who leave the rat race in order to become stay-at-home moms. These tales often are couched in assertions or assumptions about what women “really” want and, in some cases, are presented as a polemic against feminism. Some contend that these young women have looked into the lives of high-achieving females from their mothers’ generation and did not like what they saw. They have seen successful women working themselves into a frazzle trying to balance work and family. They have seen others with demanding careers who never became mothers–generally represented as an unacceptable fate (Borkowski & Ugras 1998).
In fact, relatively privileged women leave the workforce not only because they want to, but because they can. This is fine, as long as they understand that their obligations as social beings do not begin and end in the home. Narcissistic absorption in one’s family is almost as morally unattractive as narcissistic absorption in oneself-and it is an increasingly common condition among the affluent. In focusing with laser-like intensity on their offspring, parents can make it all the harder for their children to develop as independent adults. Their kids need mothers and fathers, not agents and managers (Heffernan 2004).
To be fair to these overachieving, stressed-out parents, their own ambitions are constantly being amplified by cultural messages that keep raising the stakes on parenting. As competition rises to get into the “best” schools at every level of the educational life cycle–all of this fed by our national mania for rankings, even when they make no sense–parents pursue what seems to be an ever-receding goal of absolute perfection.
Too many parents are living their children’s lives along with them, as opposed to initiating their children into the world of adults–a state of affairs I call “reverse socialization.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead long ago wrote about socialization in terms of who is socializing whom. She contrasted traditional societies, in which the young are socialized by their elders, with societies undergoing rapid change, where it is the young who have to teach their elders and help them to adjust. We clearly are living in such changing times and have been for quite a while. However, we have yet to acknowledge a major problem with reverse socialization, namely, that being au courant is not the same as being mature.
We have too many parents giving anxious and impassioned instructions to their Little Leaguers or doing heavy editing of their children’s college applications and too few exposing their children to intelligent discussions of politics and other weighty matters at the family dinner table. John Brademas, the former president of New York University who served as a member of Congress for 22 years, has spoken most eloquently about what it was like to be present at his father’s induction into U.S. citizenship in a small courthouse in the Midwest. Now, that is the kind of socialization that will inspire a future generation (Sweeney & Roberts 1997).
In order to better understand the experiences of individuals who do not make it through our doors–or those of any other college–Barnard has taken on a research project in collaboration with New York City’s Commission on Women’s Issues, focusing on those between the ages of 18-35 who do not have a college degree. There is some powerful data about the strengths and ambitions of these young women and what would have made a real difference in their life chances: better advising during their high school years and effective on-the-job training programs at their workplaces. We hope to spur action that will help others who face similar circumstances (Heffernan 2004).
As for the most privileged of our students, we seek to have those who come in with a sense of entitlement to leave with a sense of responsibility and commitment. We want them to see what they owe to a society that has been so good to them. We want them to live in the real world with its real problems, not in the sheltered bubble that many of our wealthy citizens inhabit all too exclusively. We, as their parents and teachers, must do our part to make this happen. We must meet them where they are–with all of their generation-specific anxieties and pressures–and show them how their personal experiences connect to a bigger picture. We have to help them acquire what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination”–the ability to connect personal issues to wider social forces, to connect biography to history.
This means recognizing and addressing the social politics and cultural assumptions that stand in their way and in the way of us all. For example, they need to ask what it means for their political leaders to be truly family-friendly. They should see beyond rhetoric about “family values” to look at the actual consequences of specific local, state, and Federal policies for families, women, and children. They have to focus on practical matters of working hours, income distribution, and child and health care (Cohen et al 1998).
There also are some basic cultural assumptions they need to question. For instance, women do not lose their sexual credentials by failing to have children. Some plan their lives this way. For others, that is how things turn out. Some who never bear children regret that; others do not, and lead quite happy and fulfilling lives. There indeed may be some vocations that require a choice and young women need the maturity and confidence to be able to make that choice. They need the inner strength to withstand the kind of received wisdom that is not wisdom at all.
At the same time, it is not acceptable for women to have to make difficult choices between work and family so much more often than men do. While I surely am not one to argue that life always is fair, it does very much seem to me that we are in this world to make it fairer. To that end, we need to rearrange the ideas in our heads and the institutions of our society.
Borkowski, S. C., & Ugras Y. J. (1998). Business students and ethics: A meta-analysis, Journal of Business Ethics 17, 1117-27.
Cohen, R.J., Pant, L.W., & Sharp, D.J. (1998). The effect of gender and academic discipline diversity on the ethical evaluations, ethical intentions and ethical orientation of potential public accounting recruits, Accounting Horizons, Vol. 12, No. 3, 250-270.
Glover, S.H., Bumpus, M.A., Sharp, G.F. & Munchus, G.A. (2002). Gender differences in ethical decision making, Women in Management Review, Vol. 17 No. 5, 217-227.
Heffernan, M. (2004). The female ceo ca. 2002. Fastcompany: Business Ethics, edited by Patrick E. Murphy, Wiley, Hoboken, N.J., 105111.
Sweeney, J. & Roberts R. (1997). Cognitive moral development and auditor independence, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 22; 337-352.
Cite this Gender Differences in Workplace Essay
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