It’s not close. Our women, American women, are better than yours. At least as far as international athletic competitions go they are. When the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio concluded, American women had won more gold medals than anyone-as in more gold medals than any other country’s men and women combined. Actually, Great Britain’s combined men and women tied them. But you get the point. It was a thorough and complete domination. From the track, to the pool to the basketball court, their 27 gold medals were the best ever performance by any women’s team in history.
If you watched, Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Kaslin stand on all three tiers of the podium-three beautiful American women alone at the top of the world, having just swept the women’s 100 meter hurdles-something never done by any three American women in Olympic track and field history and you weren’t proud, then you don’t get proud. Something struck me when I saw them up there. It was a feeling that grew over the last few weeks as I watched strong American women of all shapes and colors and sizes drubbing their world class competition. It was something more than just the overwhelming emotional sense of pride. It was this: Title IX was one hell of a piece of legislation.
In 1972, Title IX was signed into law by President Nixon. It was a sweeping bill that prohibited gender discrimination in any education system that received public funding-which for the most part is all of them. The reason Title IX is significant to women’s performance in the Olympics is that the law’s most well known provision required equal opportunity for women in athletics.Which means that universities receiving public funding had to invest in women’s sports with things like facilities, equipment and scholarships at parity with their men’s sports. So if you’re the University of Texas, and you want to spend $25 million on your football program so that ticket sales, sponsorship and cable TV deals can make your university $101M (these are the real numbers from 2013 according to Forbes by the way), then you are going to have to find a way to proportionately invest in women’s sports as well.
Of course you won’t make $100M more. But you have to do it. It’s the law. This is one of those times where most agree, without the legislation, the free market isn’t getting us the same outcome. Women’s collegiate and high school sports have been climbing to amazing heights ever since. Like I said, Title IX is one hell of a piece of legislation.
Though the athletics portion gets most of the press, it’s actually just a small part of the law. The rest of it was aimed at eliminating gender discrimination within the entirety of the education system. Before title IX, it was legal to exclude women from the same classes men took. Pregnancy was grounds for expulsion. Most women professors were forced to teach at women’s schools. Title IX also made it the school’s responsibility to fight sexual harassment and discrimination within their classrooms and campuses. There’s more, but you could fill a book with it, or hundreds of pages of legislation. Like I said, it’s a hell of a law. It did more to create the modern educational dynamic of inclusion for women than any one thing over the last fifty years.
The outcomes fostered by the change have been clear in athletics-1 in 27 women participated in high school sports in 1970. Now it’s 1-2.5 and we’re pummeling the rest of the world in the Olympics on my television every four years. But what about the rest of it? Has it been as helpful?
It’s hard to measure in its entirety but the quick answer is yes. According to the Department of Justice, women now graduate from college at a higher rate than men. And the trend pretty much keeps up at High School and post graduate education levels as well.
Over the last forty years, education and athletics have drastically changed the horizons of American women. That much is clear. Which brings us to the real pay off issue here-women in the workplace. We’ve moved the needle in the early part of life for women in America-school and athletics-but what’s happened in the workplace?
There’s much to be said these days about gender inequality at work. There’s a commonly accepted notion of income disparity and an ongoing political debate about the status of American maternity leave relative to other industrialized countries.Those are the political debates. The ones where we try to figure out how our government or awareness and media pressure can solve this stuff by forcing change at the highest level-top down to right the wrongs. But if you do a little digging and study some of the research by people that actually approach this scientifically, you’ll see that there’s really more going on here then will be solved by laws or PR campaigns. There’s a real, moral issue here that lives much closer to the ground where moral issues tend to live-at the you and me level.
According to a paper published by Harvard economist and professor Claudia Golden in 2014 in the American Economic review, women working full time in America earn about 30% less then men do on an annual basis. In 1980, it was 44%. Much of that difference actually has to do with the types of occupations women choose to enter into-and not straight favoritism towards men. If you normalize the wage gap to compare like experience, education levels and occupation type, that number narrows to 18%. And when you look at women who entered into the workforce more recently, within the last 20 years, the number drops even further to 10%. Which means that it’s getting better. Better, however, means women in the work force, are still valued at 90% of what a man is.
Golden goes on to argue that there are two forces at work here in the gender wage gap. The first she refers to as the explained portion. The explained portion makes up the majority of that original 30% gap and has to do with occupation type, differences in education and job availability for women who entered the work force before today’s generation. That portion is the portion that decreases when we normalize the comparison by like occupations and education levels. It’s also the portion that’s decreased the most over the last 40 years.
The second portion of the gap is less clear. She calls it the residual portion. There’s less firmly understood or proven about that. But with women now more educated then men with decades of equal work experience behind them, it’s fair to say that there’s likely not an acceptable explanation for why a woman is 90% of a man.
The obvious place to look to explain the residual lag in compensation is just plain old sexism. There’s no doubt in my mind, that’s part of it. Not because I ever see it out in the open in the work place in 2016. I know about sexism the way I know about racism. I’m a 40 year old white guy. Which means a lot of other 40 something white guys casually assume I’m part of the racist misogynist club. So when it’s just us, it comes out enough that I know it’s still there. There’s only one reaction you can have if you care about the residual problem in workplace compensation equality, which you should. Stomp it out when you see it. People have enough pain and hardship in their lives to deal with stupid old white guys longing for the days of Mad Men. It’s not cool. It’s not funny. It needs to go away…for good.
The other part is a little more nuanced. There’s a story in the data that Golden shares in her paper. There’s a pattern in how some employers compensate, especially in corporate America where they focus their highest compensation on management. Companies in corporate America tend to compensate workers willing to work longer hours with promotions and higher salaries. And by longer hours I mean over and above the normal 40 a week. Those of us in the corporate rat race know what I mean. 40 hours is a lie. And the higher you rise, the more it grows. 50, 60 hours is the norm.
There’s another interesting thing thing that we can learn from the data. It’s actually what the data doesn’t show us. Those 60 hour weeks aren’t accounted for on any balance sheet anywhere. It’s the hidden expectations of success. We don’t get overtime. We get promotions and big bonuses when our outcomes warrant it. When they don’t, we don’t. So when you look at it, not actually putting in that extra time, doesn’t show up anywhere. There’s nothing to point to that’s absent. It’s silent evidence. Where we see it materialize though, is what happens to the pay gap between men and women as they progress through their career. It grows. And it bottoms out in the late 30’s and early 40’s, then starts to recover. And if you think about it, a strong hypothesis starts to materialize.
The longer a woman stays in the work force, the more likely she is to be disproportionately effected by the commitment of family.
Now, why that is or if it’s right is something you can’t explain in a two thousand word essay-or a any essay for that matter. Why having a family impacts a women disproportionately more than men is a facet of our society that has been thousands of years in the making. But I can tell you, it’s very real because I see it every day.
Sometimes, it’s a choice. I have female colleagues who willingly take reduced roles, work part time or even change to contractor status in order to reduce their commitment to their job. And in searching my memory, I can’t think of a single instance where a man did the same. Now, because of the industry I work in and the relative stage I am in my career, these women are unquestionably the primary breadwinners in their home. Yet, they still made that choice to cut back though. And I have to be clear, where I work is about as accommodating an environment as you are going to find in corporate America.
Just because some choose to cut back doesn’t mean there’s not a problem though. For every one of those women who have chosen to sacrifice career progression for family, there are several more who would not or could not make that choice. And that’s where we need help. And by we, I don’t just mean government or corporate leadership. Political pressure on high visibility issues like maternity leave and wage discrimination help. But it’s not all of it. The American working woman is an amazing asset. The bigger role they play in anything, the better we get. Just look at Rio. So if we want to rise, they have to rise with us. And it starts by realizing that one thing that has absolutely nothing to do with gender.
When I was on active duty in the Navy, I didn’t work with many women. I went to Annapolis for college which was a little less than 90% male. I served on one of the last all male ships for my first tour. And then I transferred into other units that were only open to male participants. By the time I got out, I’d spent most of 15 years working only with men. Of my three war-time deployments, only my last one had a woman attached to the unit I served in. It’s safe to say that by 2011, when I left that world, I had about as little exposure to women in the workplace as was possible in 21st century America.
That might seem like a problem when it comes to understanding women’s issues. But it’s not. I’ve been at it for a few years now and they haven’t killed me yet. Because what the military taught me, and what is lacking when we don’t stand by our colleagues when they’re doing the human see-saw act that is balancing being mom and a business leader, is that we’re all in this together. And when we can, we take care of each other. Which is something that has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with giving a crap about the other humans you work with.
My commanding officer sent me home from Iraq for a few weeks when my son was diagnosed with autism. And when I came back to finish the deployment, he made me leave on the first set of planes taking us home-even though I’d taken two weeks away, which no one else got to take and officers usually left last. He knew I was a wreck and so was my wife. And when he saw her at the post deployment banquet, he pulled her a side and told her that I did an amazing job. And that she should be proud of all I did. And that he was personally grateful for the strain she took that allowed me to do it. He knew we both felt guilty about it-irrational as that sounds.
He gave me what I asked for because he knew what I needed to stay a part of the team. And if he didn’t, and I had to choose between my family and the team, my family won. So he didn’t let me choose. He didn’t worry about setting a bad precedence or about how it would look. Or maybe he did, because it looked like he gave a crap about me and my family-which he did.
This whole thing-all of it-works better when we realize we’re all in this together. And we do what we have to, to keep each other in the fight. And remembering that is what we can do, to close the gap for gender equality in the workplace-not governments, not shareholders. Us.
So when one of your employees comes into your office and hesitantly tells you that she’s pregnant and her due date is smack in the middle of your peak business season, the only answer is congratulations. And if she tries to apologize-it happens- don’t you dare let her. And when one of your employees who’s just returned from maternity leave asks to work on a part time schedule, for part time pay, because three kids under four and two full time working parents is just about impossible, you say, of course. Because that’s the only answer-even if your company’s policy doesn’t clearly state you have to. Don’t you dare make her choose between her work and her family, if you can help it.
Being a tough leader doesn’t mean coming down on your people. It means finding ways to make those situations work, while making it look easy, up and down the management chain. You could wait for the law or for your corporate policy to catch up with what’s right. Or you could lead and take the strain yourself. If you can’t, maybe this leadership thing isn’t for you.
And if you’re reading this as a professional woman-or man- without a family by choice or otherwise and this treatment strikes you as unfair, you’re right. It is unfair. Just like getting pulled out of a presentation to your CEO as an executive at a software company because your 12 year old got in a fight at school is unfair. Mom is usually who you call for that-no matter who you are or what you’re doing. And yes, that mom has a choice. Leave and go get him, or walk back into the meeting and go about delivering her presentation while being mom gets de-prioritized. Whatever she chooses, and I’ve seen it go both ways, it won’t feel good-either way. And that’s not fair either.
Yes, having a family is a choice-usually. And it’s not your fault they chose it. Rest easy, you’re still getting the better end of that deal. At least at work that is. Even if it simply means never having to make that crappy choice that I’ve seen dozens of times. Because that choice sucks the way few things in life suck. So cut them some slack. The workplace and the world will be a better place for it.
The American woman is fierce. I have no better term for her. They showed the world their strength and grace and toughness these last two weeks at the Olympics. But they show it in super human ways every day, splitting the unfair load of mother, wife, and pro. It takes a fierce woman to choose to jump into it. Why in the world would we ever do anything to keep that kind of fight on the sidelines when we’ve got so much to gain from inclusion.
There’s a lot of this that’s on you and me. And we can do better.