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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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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.

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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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