Christine Williams has heard her share of conflicting arguments about gender equality in the sociology course she’s taught for more than two decades at The University of Texas at Austin. But there is always one question that gives her pause: “Women have achieved equality, so why is feminism relevant?”
“I’m always taken aback when students insist that we live in a gender-blind society,” says Williams, a professor in the Department of Sociology. “I assume people know that discrimination is alive and well in our culture, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s not like I’m making these facts up or that this research is biased; the hard truth is that gender equality has not been achieved in our society.”
Looking at how women are depicted in popular TV shows like CSI or Law & Order, it’s easy to surrender to the illusion of gender equality, Williams says. However, national statistics paint a dimmer portrait of how far women have really come in the workplace.
“It’s a paradox,” Williams says. “In the 1950s, women were depicted as mothers and homemakers. Now it’s swung too far the other way, where women seem to be navigating sexism without any problems standing in their way. That’s just as much a lie as the earlier representation.”
Despite the fact that women comprise more than half of the U.S. workforce, they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to U.S. Census data. The gap is even lower for women of color, who make about 70 cents for every dollar paid to men and just 64 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
Putting those statistics into perspective, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963, women made 59 cents for every dollar a man made. In half a century, women have only secured an additional 18 cents on the dollar.
There are plenty of exceptions. But on the whole, women earn far less than men—and the pay gap is even more cavernous at the upper echelons of the corporate ladder.
So what’s the holdup? In an age when women are outnumbering men in college and in the voting booth, shouldn’t they be making great strides in attaining equal pay? Seeking answers to these questions, researchers in the College of Liberal Arts are identifying some of the underlying reasons why gender inequality still exists today.
In many industries, both men and women enter the workforce on an equal footing. But once they reach their 30s and 40s, women lag behind. Sociologist Jennifer Glass attributes this problem, in part, to career interruptions such as maternity leave and child care.
“Deeply held stereotypes about women creep in subtly in the workplace,” says Glass, who holds the Barbara Pierce Bush Regents Professorship in Liberal Arts. “Mothers are seen as caregivers who will ultimately shirk work to spend time with family. It’s not uncommon to hear a CEO openly say something like, ‘once they have a baby, it’s all over from there.’”
The sad fact of the matter is that women eventually do get frustrated and quit, Glass notes. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she adds. “Women who aren’t treated right will end up quitting at higher rates, and thus confirm their managers’ biased assumptions about women abandoning their careers to become housewives.”
So how can women—with or without children— keep stride with their male colleagues? Should they take a page from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In playbook and work harder, longer and faster than the average office employee? Should they go the extra mile to gain recognition for their tireless efforts?
Not necessarily, Glass says. In order to gain an equal footing, structural changes need to be made within the workplace. “Rather than ‘leaning in,’ we need to think of the conditions that are keeping women from thriving,” Glass says. “That means new legislation, rethinking flexible schedules and rewarding people for their contributions rather than their amount of face time in the office. We need to look at the structures that are holding women back right now rather than acquiescing to them.”
Granting women more autonomy and work flexibility is a great place to start, Glass says. Not only would a flexible schedule improve their work-life balance, they would also have more opportunities to explore professional development activities. Yet companies offering these options—including telecommuting— often favor men.
According to Glass’ 2012 study titled “The Hard Truth about Telecommuting,” men in high-level careers are more likely to be granted these accommodations because employers assume women working from home will spend their office hours cleaning dishes and changing diapers. Glass also found that even female managers are suspicious of women who ask to work remotely, not trusting that they’ll be productive.
“The paradox is that the people who most need flexibility aren’t going to get it,” Glass says. Economist Sandra Black says paid leave is essential to keeping women in the workforce. Beyond benefitting children, family-friendly policies, such as mandatory maternity leave and subsidized child care, will provide an economic stimulus by boosting labor force participation.
“I think a bigger problem in the U.S. is the absence of family-friendly policies,” says Sandra Black, who holds the Audre and Bernard Rapoport Centennial Chair in Economics. “Women lose in the workforce when they have children—this is a key difference between the U.S. and the Nordic countries.”
Ask a social scientist about progressive gender equality policies in other countries, and most likely they’ll point to the Nordic nations that are consistently standing out in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report. Norway, for example, made waves in 2003 when it implemented a gender quota that required hundreds of firms to raise female participation on boards to 40 percent.
To investigate the potential benefits of Norway’s gender quota law, Marianne Bertrand of Chicago Booth School of Business and Black conducted a 2014 study titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling? The Effect of Board Quotas on Female Labor Market Outcomes in Norway.” Co-authors include Adriana Lleras-Muney of the University of California Los Angeles and Sissel Jensen of the Norwegian School of Economics. They found this reform had very little discernable impact on women beyond placing women at the top. And even at the upper echelons of the corporate sphere, men were still gaining salary increases at a faster rate.
Even in female-dominated—or “pink collar” jobs—such as social work, teaching and nursing, a disproportionate number of men are rising to top-level positions at a much faster clip than their female colleagues.
According to Williams’ 1992 study titled “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions,” the men who work in women-dominated fields have a way of gliding up to the top as if they are being lifted by an invisible force.
According to her study, in which she coined the term “glass escalator,” men entering female-dominated professions tend to be promoted at faster rates than women in the same roles. In fact, men in these occupations fare better than men in male-dominated jobs, and they typically earn higher salaries, receive more promotions and achieve higher levels within organizations than their female counterparts.
So why aren’t more male students applying to nursing schools in droves? Williams says that despite the potential for career advancement, men still face the scrutiny of taking on “women’s work.” Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Parents is the perfect example of how male nurses are subjects for mockery.
Clearly sexism is alive and well for both men and women in gender-based jobs. However, when it comes to tokenism in the workplace, women stand the least to gain, Williams says.
As for women working in a “man’s world,” that glass escalator is apparently on the fritz. Rather than coasting up to the corner office, they’ll have to grab on to the rope ladder and embark on a rigorous climb.
Take for example venture capital, an industry dominated by males and specifically white men. According to a 2014 Harvard University study co-authored by Emily Weisburst, an economics doctoral researcher at UT Austin, the few women working in this industry significantly underperform their male colleagues by about 15 percent.
Weisburst insists this is not a matter of Mars versus Venus. It’s more about mentoring. According to her study, women do not benefit from their male colleagues within their own firms. Weisburst suggests this effect is related to the differences in mentoring opportunities between men and women.
The good news is that women appear to be performing better in older, more established firms that employ more women. The findings offer some hope for future female moguls, Weisburst says.
“A mentor relationship is personal, so there’s a tendency for people to co-invest with individuals who are more like them,” Weisburst adds.
Maria Luisa “Lulu” Flores, a partner at Hendler Lyons Flores, knows how important mentors are to career success—especially if you’re a minority woman working in a male-dominated field working in a male-dominated field. Looking back at three successful decades of practicing law, she attributes her inspiration to her older sister, who is also a lawyer, and her former boss Irma Rangel, the first Mexican American woman elected to the Texas Legislature.
“Working for the first Latino woman in the Texas House was a big impetus for me to enter the policy arena,” says Flores, who received her law degree from UT Austin in 1977. “I could see there was a higher need for women in politics.”
To pay it forward, Flores serves as a mentor for UT Austin’s NEW Leadership™ Texas, a summer residential institute designed to educate female students from colleges across Texas about politics and leadership. During the six-day program, she met with a group of 25 students to answer questions and offer insights into the challenges they’ll likely encounter in the political arena.
Even if students aren’t charting out a road to the White House, the networking aspect of the program will undoubtedly help them in their future careers, says Nancy Ewert, program coordinator in the Center of Women’s and Gender Studies, which sponsors NEW Leadership™ Texas.
“In addition to meeting with several prominent women who are shaping public policy, participants will leave the program with a strong network of future leaders who share common interests,” Ewert says.
National programs such as NEW Leadership™ Texas show great promise in supporting young women to pursue careers in politics. Yet the United States still has far to go until women are proportionally represented in politics.
Women comprise about 18 percent of the U.S. Congress, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. This means more than 80 percent of men are voting on and passing every law regarding women— and the population as a whole.
This includes the Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed to pass the Senate again last spring, sparking an election-year partisan fight over which policies are friendlier to women.
Had it passed, the bill would prohibit employers from paying a man more than a woman for the same job, and it would have stopped retaliation against workers for inquiring about wages of other employees.
Whether or not the bill would effectively bridge the wage gap remains to be seen, says Bethany Albertson, assistant professor of government. But if Texas passed a state-level version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, it would set a new standard for the rest of the country to take gender discrimination seriously.
“I don’t understand why more politicians aren’t paying more attention to women’s voting potential. On a national level, women outvote men,” says Albertson, who notes that voting in favor of gender equality can be a highly effective campaign strategy.
Political agendas aside, Glass believes the Paycheck Fairness Act is a common sense fix to ending salary secrecy, empowering women to negotiate for the wages they deserve.
“We need new legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act that can put a stop to gender discrimination in corporate jobs,” Glass says. “We need to move away from this pretense that the only way to get ahead is to continuously ask for a raise. When the power lies within the hands of the employers, there’s going to be unfair treatment. That’s just the way it is.” Williams, however, believes that a long-term solution lies far outside the bounds of salary transparency legislation.
“To fill the gap, companies need to enforce good old-fashioned affirmative action programs,” says Williams, who recently won the Jessie Bernard Award from the American Sociological Association for her research on women and society. “We need to rehabilitate these programs that hold companies accountable with hiring guidelines and goals. That’s the only way to spread awareness about gender inequity—and to ultimately change discriminatory behaviors. Once behaviors change through corporate and government mandates, the values will follow.”
Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality
University of California Press, Jan. 2006
By Christine L. Williams, professor, Department of Sociology and Center for Women’s and Gender Studies