In a recent analysis on the personal finance website WalletHub, Professor of Women’s Studies Betty Bayer and other experts delineate the reasons behind gender-based disparities in the workplace, in education and in political representation across the U.S.
The article, “2016’s Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality,” identifies “the most gender-egalitarian states by comparing them across 15 key metrics” alongside authoritative commentary and sheds “light on the reasons behind the country’s disappointing performance with closing its gender gap.”
In her analysis, Bayer takes a long view of the gender gap, noting that the often invoked notion of slow progress is “an analytic trap” that keeps things “running in place,” offering an “illusion of social change.”
“Change in policies or technologies or workplace involves beliefs, culture and social arrangements too,” she explains. “Structural change is as important as political, cultural and social.”
Bayer also examines the ways in which the gender gap affects women’s quality of life issues, where those issues intersect with race and the long-term financial impacts that follow from unequal pay, like student debt, as women who graduate with identical degrees and debt to men endure more years repaying their loans and a reduced quality of living.
“Recent social science studies…continue to show that even when qualifications between candidates are identical to one another, women are not rated as highly as men. Remove the gender, and this falls away…Here too race and gender combine to show not only a devaluation of women, but a stratified devaluation depending on one’s race,” she says.
While policy shifts must be equaled with “full scale cultural, social and political change,” Bayer says, “younger generations are more open, and workplaces may find themselves at odds with an entire new generation if they do not embrace gender and diversity as crucial to their success.”
Recognized for her outstanding teaching ability, Bayer received the Colleges’ prestigious Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award in 2004 and the Community Service Award in 2009. She has served as the chair of the Women Studies Program since 2001 and directed the Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men from 2002 to 2009. A former senior fellow at the Martin Marty Center for the Study of Religion at the University of Chicago, Bayer earned her Ph.D., M.A. and B.A. in psychology from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
The full response of Professor of Women’s Studies Betty Bayer that appears in Wallethub are as follows:
The US is currently ranked 64th globally when it comes to the gender gap in health and survival. What is driving this? What should be done to close this gap?
The first question anyone needs to ask when gender gap issues are raised is: what is the timeline you are using to look at the gender gap? The second question is to ask yourself: How does this gap translate into quality of life issues for women? A third is to ask how these compare when race is considered as well.
On the first question, the gender gap is usually invoked to gesture toward some notion of progress – albeit, all too slow, but nonetheless to convey a sense of moving forward. And that’s an analytic trap. It keeps things “running in place.” What do I mean by this? If you measure a gender gap across six or so decades, you will end up tracking a slow but perceptible change. However, if, as some feminist historians argue, you measure this in centuries, you will see a similar trajectory of small gains and losses. This longer timeline is a telling index – women’s gains and losses seem to hover around the same rates of increase and decrease, roughly by 15-20% above and below the median wage (e.g., Judith Bennett, 2010, “History Matters”). What this means is that we might see 15-20% improvement, but we might also see 15-20% declines. Overall, this tallies to little or no progress – or an illusion of social change. This tells us several things: change in policies or technologies or workplace involves beliefs, culture and social arrangements too. Structural change is as important as political, cultural and social.
The second question asks one to think through the flip side of things. That is, instead of looking to see how close women’s pay is to men’s, one looks instead at what limits to quality of life are placed on women by gender gaps in pay as well as economic and political power. And here one needs to look at gender and race. Take student debt, for example. If women are paid less on graduating but carry the same amount of student debt, how many more years will they be paying off that debt than men? Now take into account gender and race rather than treating all women as alike. Here, this discrepancy becomes wider for black women who earn 75% and Hispanic women 69% to white women’s 83% of white men’s wages (2016, Pew Research). To combine all women into a single category is thus both useful and problematic in considering the impact of gender gaps on quality of life. What trade-offs will these women be making over the same period of time as their white male counterparts? How much less will they be able to put towards a retirement savings plan, vacations, rent or a mortgage or whatever? This picture tells a different economic story about women and the gender gap. It brings the issue more centrally home to the day-to-day and quality of life.
The Massachusetts Equal Pay Bill – a well-intentioned path toward building gender equality and compensation equity – tries to solve things with one stroke. However key that is, it needs other components to ensure its success. Legislative actions depend on open career opportunities to women – to all women — for those better paying jobs. The Equal Pay Bill relies on a corresponding paradigm shift in how we review job applicants and the value we attach to women. Recent social science studies, for example, continue to show that even when qualifications between candidates are identical to one another, women are not rated as highly as men. Remove the gender, and this falls away. Compounding this discrimination are findings showing when women predominate numerically in a profession, the profession itself may become devalued and with that an accompanying drop in salaries for that profession. Here too race and gender combine to show not only a devaluation of women, but a stratified devaluation depending on one’s race.
The US is currently ranked 72th globally when it comes to the gender gap in political empowerment. Are there strategies the US can learn from other countries to help close this gap?
In a word: yes. Or: just get on with it. Consider Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who built his cabinet to reflect gender parity that reflects diversity too. When asked why, he simply said: “Because it is 2015.” Here we have a short but powerful statement and a leader who makes it happen rather than merely talking about it. Getting on with this work is key. Succession planning is equally important and rarely addressed – in politics or professions. Political parties need to show more women who are likely presidential candidates in the future, for example. Women leaders who are making a difference need to be featured in more media. There is more happening but much of it is rendered invisible. Few people can name how many women have run for the office of the president of the US, or women inventors, composers, artists, environmentalists, and so on. Without this, we do not see women’s history as American history or global history. Changes in curriculum would help here too, from kindergarten through to post-graduate education.
Some believe the US will move more quickly toward equality if the Equal Rights Amendment is passed (ERA), as is argued by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D). That legislation was first introduced in the early 1900s by Alice Paul; reintroduced but still not ratified in the 1970s; and, is now being reintroduced again. Along with this, though, we need a shift-change in media depictions of women leaders (in politics and elsewhere), representation of women on boards, in sciences, and in film and media at all levels of work.
Many of these arguments were made in the 1960s. They were also made in the early twentieth century when women thought they had secured themselves a place professionally in medicine as they gained entrance to becoming doctors only to find themselves, in a matter of decades, having to begin this struggle all over again. All this to say, we simply need to get on it with at all levels – structure, policy and ideology – and we need to work to take the longer view so we do not misread small gains as historical progress when they may reflect a longer history of near similar cycles.
What policies would prove effective at increasing female representation in senior management roles in the Fortune 500 and other large, multinational corporations?
Polices are needed but in conjunction with full scale cultural, social and political change. Governing representation on boards and in leadership positions is rarely in and of itself a solution. However, it may and can be a good first step. There is good evidence boards with strong representation of women perform better too financially. Holding management and Fortune 500 companies accountable is another step. How is it that they sidestep qualified women? How do they address diversity? Workplaces have a culture and social arrangements practices often requiring changes. Many seem stuck – but younger generations are more open, and workplaces may find themselves at odds with an entire new generation if they do not embrace gender and diversity as crucial to their success.