With the recession jumpstarting the transition toward a predominantly female workforce, journalists across the country have been plunging into the realm of gender diversity data, hoping to tell a coherent story about the progress and perils of working women. Both TIME and the Economist have recently divulged their data and viewpoints, indicating that the economic empowerment of women is now a factual reality. NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof aptly shifts his focus to the developing world, explaining how the emancipation of women and girls can in turn fight poverty and extremism.
Regardless of the vantage point, few argue with the descriptive data indicating that progress is real (at least in the US): within the next few months, women will represent over 50% of the American workforce with female unemployment rates almost 3% lower than that of men. They already comprise 51% of management, professional and related occupations, according to Catalyst. The BLS calculates that women are also well-positioned in growing industries, comprising ‘more than two-thirds of employees in ten of the 15 job categories likely to grow fastest in the next few years,’ according to The Economist. Women also earn over half of university degrees in America and Europe.
However, the story around the perils of working women is not as consistent.
The (bleak) data. Examining the not-so-rosy numbers around female representation in the upper echelons of management suggests that the optimists still have their foes. The most recent data states that ~2% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, 13-15% of the board members of these firms are women, and the average full-time female earns only about 80% as much as the average male.
Viscerally, these numbers are bleak. My good friend and author of Mergers and Executions, though, is perturbed by the use of these stats. CXO writes:
I continue to be surprised, however, by the way this debate hangs on empirical figures alone, as if the “paltry showing” of female executives is itself an argument for a collective imperative to redress the imbalance.
Although I agree with CXO’s argument that singular data points should not dictate public policy or firm-level hiring practices, I am compelled to believe that the numbers are descriptive of (proven) larger truths. The debate does not rest on empirical figures alone. It is couched in decades of qualitative evidence and academic research suggesting that not only are the numbers pointing to a dearth of female leadership, but that there still exists a systematic flaw in hiring, training and retaining practices.
Further, it is easy to forget that 30 years ago, we would unlikely be tracking female representation at the executive level as a metric for progress. We’d probably be looking more broadly at gender diversity in the workplace at all levels; however, as we progress in our understanding of the importance of workplace diversity and set new goals for the status quo, our metrics move up the corporate pyramid and become more relevant for the issues at hand.
The ‘so what.’ Assuming (hopefully) that workplace diversity is important and that progress has been made, even in part, several questions remain, including: (1) What are the implications of the progress made thus far? and (2) Where do we have yet to go? I will leave the latter question for the experts, but a thought on the ‘so what.’
The Economist summarizes the uber-implication quite aptly in my opinion:
If the empowerment of women was one of the great changes of the past 50 years, dealing with its social consequences will be one of the great challenges of the next 50.
From this perspective, the choices around ‘work-life balance’ (aka motherhood) and the ways in which companies / governments help make the choices more manageable will help shape contemporary American life. Whether women choose to wait, not have kids altogether, forgo careers or choose an intermediate path remain choices women can make as individuals or with their families. Despite the plethora of ‘choice,’ our current system provides equal opportunities and unequal expectations. Generally speaking, firms incentivize women as they do men and give women more or less the same choices as they do men, yet the expectations are typically higher for women — namely, women are expected to both excel in their careers and raise the kids.
Within the current system, the only way to ‘have it all’ (kids, career, social life, financial independence, etc. etc.) is to have it all, just not all at the same time. This is definitely progress compared to the recent past, but we either need to shift our expectations as individuals to be comfortable with making tough choices about what matters to us and when, or the burden can fall on government and firms to reshape, and perhaps personalize, the definitions of success. Otherwise, we seem destined to making mediocre compromises along all fronts, or worse…