Opinion

For women's career equality: parent-friendly work, Equal Rights Amendment

To break glass ceilings, feminists of the past put career above all else. But a new generation of feminists isn't willing to sacrifice family for work. Instead, they're lobbying to make workplaces more family friendly.

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Last week, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York and Senator Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey reintroduced The Equal Rights Amendment on the floor of Congress. This is not a startling event – the bill has been introduced every session since 1972.

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at the mere mention of the ERA. Isn’t that a throwback to ’70s feminism? Hey, you’ve come a long way, baby. Don’t we have enough gender equality already?

But anyone who thinks that is just wrong. Numbers released just this May by the National Association of Colleges and Employers show that women who are graduating from college this year will make 17 percent less than their male counterparts in their first jobs. And that’s before those pesky questions of family and career balance are even on the table.

This is nothing new. A 2007 poll of Harvard graduating seniors found that the median first-year base salary for males was $60,000 compared to $50,000 for females – a gender wage shortfall of about 17 percent for some of the most talented young women in America. Over the course of a career, that gap can add up, meaning women miss out on potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings.

Why women earn less than men five decades after Equal Employment Opportunity laws goes to the heart of a misguided debate between two different generations of women over a basic but profound question: What is equality?

Feminists can have families

At the Yale campus where I’m a scholar, the junior female faculty are circulating a petition for more university-funded childcare. Some senior female faculty find that more than wishful thinking; they question a decision to have babies at a vulnerable career stage, when the emphasis should be on research and building credentials.

But even if those critics are right, how do we explain pay differentials right out of college? The answer has to do with the type of work people choose. Few graduating seniors from Ivy Leagues are having babies, but more women than men stay away from careers with punishing hours that undermine family time. Many women don’t even apply for jobs that seem incompatible with a normal family life. In the 2007 Harvard study, over half of the gender wage gap vanished when controlling for the reality that more men than women chose careers in finance and IT where career success requires around-the-clock time commitment.

Solutions to the family problem include subsidized and accessible childcare, family-friendly working arrangements, and incentives for fathers to take parenting as seriously as women. Economists Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz have shown that the gender wage gap is narrower in group medical practices, in which doctors can cover for one another’s absences, than in the business world where a key to success is the continuous cultivation of client relationships.

Wall Street law and banking is not only a man’s world, it is a world for men unburdened by family responsibilities. Women make disproportionate use of flex time while some men just get going after hours with client schmoozing and 24/7 availability for work.

Sexism reinforced at work

According to many women who have made it through the childbearing years, however, drawing attention to women’s mothering role only makes matters worse. Of course men should be doing their share at home, and women should be choosing male partners who will. The bigger problem, they say, is that everyone in our society has bought into the sexist norms that are in our drinking water. A great many people still expect women and minorities to perform less well across a whole range of tasks.

And this is reinforced by workplace dynamics. Men pay disproportionate attention to other men in meetings. How often do women still experience the urge to say “Would a man please restate my point so we can accept it and move on?” Job applications with names signaling female or minority candidates receive lower scores than identical applications from white males.

More astonishingly, studies also show that women and minority reviewers are also likely to be biased against women and minority candidates. And as social psychologist Jack Dovidio and others have shown, things have not improved much since these studies began in the 1980s.

Solutions exist

Solutions to the sexism problem include alerting firms' human resources departments to unconscious bias, and encouraging aggressive recruitment and mentoring of female and minority workers. In one experiment conducted by the American Economics Association in 2009, female academic economists who were paired up with senior faculty mentors were more likely to submit and publish papers in peer-reviewed journals than were the women left to fend for themselves in the old boys’ networks.

The argument between the anti-sexism warriors and the champions of family-career balance reflects a generational clash. Battle-scarred women in mid-career broke through successive glass ceilings to get where they are, making colossal personal sacrifices along the way. Many are unmarried or childless. They know there is no such thing as a perfect family-career balance. They shake their heads at young women who cannot see the missing rungs all the way up the ladder.

Younger women owe huge debts to their feminist forbears who have unveiled the enduring workplace bias. Thanks to them, we can now see that, if a woman is to enjoy the same freedoms as a man to experience the joys of family and work, we need to find ways to make life for everyone more compatible with both.

Passing an ERA can’t hurt, but it won’t solve the problem until we can agree on what is holding us back. Both generations are right. We have to keep combating sexism while making the workplace more family-friendly. It is time for sisters – and mothers and daughters – to unite.

Frances McCall Rosenbluth is Damon Wells Professor of International Politics and deputy provost for the social sciences at Yale University.

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