Think Again: Working Women

Why American women are better off than the lean-inners and have-it-allers realize.


“You Should Be Able to Have a Family if You Want One … and Still Have the Career You Desire.”

Should? Maybe. Will? No way. There are always tradeoffs between career and family. That goes double for women.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the words quoted above in the Atlantic, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, incoming president of the New America Foundation, and all-around overachiever ignited a furious global discussion among feminists, post-feminists, post-post feminists, and just about everyone else. Now, with the publication of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s No. 1 bestselling book, Lean In, women’s work-life balance is Topic A all over again.

Slaughter and Sandberg approach the problem from different angles; the former focuses on the barriers created by an inflexibly demanding workplace, while the latter emphasizes women’s internal obstacles, like self-doubt and a speak-only-when-called-on approach to life. But Slaughter and Sandberg probably agree on the ultimate goal: a world where, as Sandberg puts it, women run “half our countries and companies” and men run “half our homes.”

Neither answers a basic question, though: Is this vision even within the realm of possibility? Some Americans like to think so and tend to look longingly across the ocean for solutions to the work-family dilemma. It’s easy to see why they imagine hope lies abroad, in the more liberal corners of Europe and among progressive innovators everywhere. Americans are famously reluctant to try federal solutions for social issues, and at any rate, the failure to create a gender Shangri-La appears to be pretty far down on their list of complaints. By contrast, the European Union has announced a procession of treaties, agreements, reports, monitoring data, and targets since its founding, all in the service of making Sandberg’s vision a reality. And truth be told, when it comes to official efforts to advance women, even the most unlikely candidates — Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Kyrgyzstan, to name just a few of the countries that now use quotas to empower women — seem to have leapfrogged past the United States.

But here’s what the lean-inners and have-it-allers need to ponder: Everywhere on Earth — including in the Scandinavian countries that have tried almost everything short of obligatory hormone therapy aimed at equalizing power between the sexes — mothers remain the default parent while men dominate the upper echelons of the business world. There are limits to what governments can do to create gender equality — and it’s time we acknowledge it.

Matthew Antrobus/Getty Images

“Women in the United States Are Worse Off.”

Wrong. In fact, American women are far more likely to work full time and rise to the top levels of business, academia, and professional fields like law and medicine — though not politics — than women in other developed countries. According to a recent study by Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, American women are about as likely as American men to be company managers, while women in the researchers’ comparison group of 10 other developed countries were only half as likely as men to have made it that far. In fact, the United States has the highest proportion of women in senior management positions of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of the world’s most developed countries. At 43 percent, it is a percentage that comes close to women’s 47 percent overall share of the U.S. labor force.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks the United States eighth globally on gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, ahead of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Iceland. According to Blau and Kahn, 24 percent of working American women are in the professional fields, compared to only 16 percent of working American men; the gap in other countries also favors women, but by much less, 19 vs. 17 percent. If you exclude traditionally female occupations such as nursing and teaching, American women look even better relative to women in comparison countries. In general, the U.S. labor market is less segregated by sex than those of other economically advanced countries, with more women breaking into traditionally male fields. What’s more, American women are more likely than European women to start and run their own businesses; some 46 percent of American firms are owned or co-owned by women, and the rate of female ownership is increasing at one and a half times the rate of overall business growth.

This story may seem counterintuitive. The success of Sandberg’s book and Slaughter’s article no doubt reflects a deep dissatisfaction among some American women with what is often described as a “stalled revolution” toward equality. The WEF’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, for example, ranks the United States 22nd out of 135 countries for gender equality in education, health, political empowerment, and economic participation and opportunity — barely in view of top-rated Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and worse even than Latvia and Lesotho.

As for America’s notorious glass ceiling? Despite women’s success moving into senior management positions, they have barely breached the career penthouse. In the legal profession, although women make up 47 percent of American law students, they account for just 21 percent of law school deans, 20 percent of law firm partners, and 23 percent of federal judges, according to Catalyst, a research nonprofit. In the country’s top 50 law firms, moreover, women make up only 19 percent of equity partners. For women in medicine, the prospects aren’t any better: Although they make up 48 percent of medical school graduates, they only represent 13 percent of medical school deans and department chairs and 19 percent of full professors. In business, it’s much the same: Women earn 37 percent of MBAs, but account for only 14 percent of executive officers, 18 percent of senior financial officers, and 4 percent of CEOs.

While these numbers represent progress, they also show that things are moving glacially. “If change continues at the same slow pace as it has done for the past fifty years,” the Institute for Women’s Policy Research warns, “it will take almost another fifty — or until 2056 — for women to finally reach pay parity.” In fact, the organization found no change in the gender wage gap between full-time workers between 2009 and 2011. Meanwhile, an endless series of reports in every field — academia, law, business, medicine, tech — bemoans a career pipeline that continues to leak promising women at every stage.

As dispiriting as all this may seem, leaning in isn’t any easier in other developed countries — including in the Scandinavian equality havens that topped the World Economic Forum’s list. In fact, it might even be harder. Women make up only 18 percent of leadership positions at top universities and research institutions in Scandinavia versus 22 percent in the United States. As for the business sector, Finland currently has only one female CEO of a publicly listed company. In Sweden, only 2.5 percent of chief executives at listed companies are female, and the wage gap at the top between women and men is significantly higher than that in the United States. Female CEOs are a rarity in Norway too, at just 2 percent.

Iceland does have a higher percentage of women in C-suite positions than the United States, though it still doesn’t have much to brag about. Iceland‘s CEOs are only 10 percent women, a figure that has hardly budged over the past 10 years. And the pipeline is running very slowly. Icelandic women represent only 19 percent of managers overall; Norway does better, but women are still only 40 percent of managers in the public sector and 22 percent in the private sector. If you’re a woman who wants to aim high, you’re probably better off in the USA.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

“Discrimination Is to Blame
for America’s Large Wage Gap.”

No. Gender wage gaps are a global phenomenon. If you are a woman, or at least if you are a woman with children, chances are you are making less than your average countryman. This is true whether you live in Istanbul or Oslo, Tokyo or Stockholm. Although America’s 18 percent wage gap is about 3 percentage points wider than the OECD average, it is almost identical to the gap in Britain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and narrower than that in Finland and Germany. (It is, however, wider than the gaps in Sweden and Denmark and, perhaps more surprisingly, Hungary, Italy, and Spain.)

But as these rankings suggest, the wage gap is not a very good measure of discrimination. Discrimination certainly plays some role in generating wage disparities — particularly in more traditional Asian societies like Japan, where the gap is close to 30 percent, or South Korea, where it approaches 40 percent — but other factors are also at play. For example, high levels of unionization and strong minimum wage laws reduce the size of gender wage gaps — just as they reduce overall inequality. Because women are more prevalent in lower-wage jobs, redistributive policies, like those in Sweden and Norway, mean smaller overall wage gaps. But there’s a tradeoff here: Egalitarian countries also tend to have higher gender wage gaps among top earners than less-regulated economies like the United States.

Far from giving us an accurate picture of women’s overall status, official wage-gap statistics actually muddy the water. Countries with a lower proportion of women in the labor force and poor records on gender equality, for example, often have relatively small wage gaps because only the most highly qualified women go to work at all. This explains why the average Italian working woman makes more relative to her male peers than the average Danish or Swedish woman. Small wage gaps don’t necessarily mean you’re progressive; they could mean just the opposite.

They could also very well reflect women’s preferences, rather than discrimination. In the OECD countries, women are more likely than men to enter lower-paying fields — say, teaching or social work, rather than computer programming or business. More importantly, women seem more willing than men to make the tradeoff between earnings and status and time with children. They work fewer hours than men across the board, even if you compare only full-time workers. They are also more likely to work in the less remunerative and less demanding public sector. Everywhere in the OECD, childless women in their 20s earn more like men than older women with children. And in the United States, those women actually earn more than childless men in their 20s.


“America’s Maternity and Child-Care Policies Are Holding Women Back.”

Which women? It’s certainly true that many other countries have more generous parental leave and child-care provisions than the United States. And it’s also very likely the case that those policies bring more women into the workforce. Among the countries that top the OECD’s ranking for female labor-force participation — including Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, and Canada — close to 80 percent of mothers work. Most offer between six months and a year of at least partially paid parental leave in addition to other benefits for parents. In Norway, to take one especially appealing example, couples get 47 weeks of parental leave and have the rights to demand part-time work and stay at home with sick children. Ninety percent of the country’s 1- to 5-year-olds are in state-subsidized day care.

U.S. family policies, meanwhile, have more in common with Liberia and Swaziland than Scandinavia. Thanks to the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, American women now get 12 weeks of maternity leave, but it’s unpaid and applies only to women working for companies with 50 or more employees. In practice, that means the law applies to somewhere around half of private-sector workers (though many states and companies have their own policies that can include longer and/or paid leave).

Being stingy toward mothers hasn’t worked out well for the U.S. economy. While women have been pouring into the European workplace, American women haven’t gone to work at appreciably higher rates since the mid-1990s, when the robust growth of the preceding decades petered out. In 1990, the United States ranked sixth out of 22 OECD countries in the proportion of women working. By 2010, it had dropped to 17th. That said, 71 percent of American mothers are working, which is lower but not dramatically so than the Nordics.

But high labor-force participation rates cut both ways. While family-friendly policies may make many women — in particular those in lower- and mid-wage jobs — happier and perhaps even more productive and their children healthier, there is a growing body of evidence that they also inadvertently create a “mommy track.” In fact, more generous leave policies partly explain the glass ceilings, as well as stubbornly large wage gaps in more progressive countries. Such policies, Blau and Kahn have found, “may encourage women who would have otherwise had a stronger labor force commitment to take part-time jobs or lower-level positions.” In practice that means that part-time work has ended up accounting for most of the increase in female labor-force participation, they found. Swedish and Norwegian mothers, for instance, are somewhat more likely to be working than American mothers. But they are also far more likely to be part-time workers than their counterparts in the United States, where in 40 percent of households with children, women are now the primary breadwinners. So if the goal is workforce equality, family-friendly policies as they are currently designed are not going to do the trick.

The reasons should be fairly obvious. A woman who takes six or eight or 12 months off — not to mention a woman who does so two or three times during her career — loses touch with her firm’s culture and network and depletes her seniority. And as Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO who famously took only two weeks of (working) maternity leave, well understood, top executives, whether women or men, cannot disappear for very long for any reason. Extended periods of paid leave may also discourage women from starting their own businesses. In Denmark, for example, if a woman on maternity leave works, she has to give up some of her maternity allowance. And even where the government pays for parental leave, as it does in Sweden, and there are strenuous laws against discrimination, companies hiring women face indirect costs and considerable inconvenience. Given a choice between a woman of childbearing age, who might well take a year off in the near future, and an equally talented young man who would take maybe a month off, many executives — male or female — would probably hire the latter.

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“Getting Dads to Take Time Off
Will Help Women Reach Equality.”

Wrong again. A number of activists have pinned their hopes on having dads lean in at home by taking more paternity leave. “How about this?” Slaughter proposed at a South by Southwest conference panel this spring. “Let’s start with six months paid leave. Three for the woman, three for the man.” As it happens, some other countries have tried something very similar. The best that can be said about the results — and this is worth something to be sure — is that paternity leave makes dads more hands-on when it comes to child care and household chores. But that’s only when they’re actually at home. Even in countries with the longest leave policies, fathers still work considerably longer hours than mothers. Unsurprisingly, they also earn more money and move higher up the career ladder.

Most places with paternity leave offer only a few days or a week, usually when a new mother has not yet returned to the office. That’s probably not enough to change dynamics at home. But the problem isn’t necessarily that paternity leave is too short. Sweden and Iceland, among others, have designed policies explicitly intended to equalize domestic responsibilities, and the results aren’t that promising.

In Sweden, fathers have long been encouraged to take some parental leave, but in 1995, noting how few of them were actually doing so, the government followed Norway’s lead and reserved one month of total parental leave as a use-it-or-lose-it month just for fathers. The reform was at least nominally successful: The average father took off 35 days, a little more than the month offered. In 2002, the government went further, making two full “daddy months” of parental leave nontransferable to moms. Men took off an average of 47 days, still considerably less than the total available. Then in 2008, dissatisfied with the remaining large gender gap in the leave taken by dads versus moms, the government introduced yet another reform: the “gender equality bonus.” Under this law, the more couples shared leave time, the more money they would get. Amazingly, the reform had no impact. According to official statistics, women still took 76 percent of leave days in 2011. The long-term effects of Sweden’s parental-leave policy, in other words, have been negligible, all the more so when you consider how many women gravitate toward part-time jobs.

Besides, paternity leave is relevant only when there are two active parents. As of 2010, 23 percent of Icelandic families with children were headed by a single parent. In Sweden it was around 20 percent; in Finland, 23 percent; and in Norway, 22 percent. (America’s rate of lone parenthood, 28 percent, is the third-highest of OECD countries, surpassed only by Estonia and Latvia.) Single parents in every country are almost always women. That means that for close to a quarter of mothers in these countries, equality on the domestic front is a moot issue. If only for logistical reasons, it also means higher overall gender gaps across the board — hours worked, earnings, CEOs, university deans, and so on. It makes for some pretty daunting math for anyone trying to get to Sandberg’s 50-50 vision.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

“Quotas Work.”

Up to a point. Quotas reserving for women, say, 30 or 40 percent of the seats in legislative bodies or boards of publicly traded companies are all the rage these days and are now in place in 116 countries. Political quotas at the local level are on the books in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Even Afghanistan, among the most repressive places on Earth for women, requires that 68 out of 249 parliamentary seats be held by women. The practice is also widespread in Latin America, where Argentina led the way by instituting quotas in 1991. Advocates argue that quotas increase women’s political representation in places where there is little and help move beyond mere tokenism in countries where progress is stalled. But the spillover effects from these policies are hard to find, and they may even undermine women in the long run by elevating poorly qualified candidates.

Take Norway. In 2003, it became the first country to require that 40 percent of board members of publicly traded companies be female. (The European Union has proposed a nonbinding version of this, which would be phased in by 2020.) But although the country has succeeded in stocking its boardrooms with women, little else has changed. Like other countries that have since instituted boardroom quotas, Norway still has a pitifully small number of female CEOs and managers and has seen little alteration in the gender makeup of executive suites.

Conventional wisdom has it that whether or not boardroom quotas are good for women, they are good for business. There is some research showing a correlation between boardroom composition and company performance. But other more focused studies are not so hopeful. A study published in 2011 by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, for instance, found that Norway’s quotas produced inexperienced boards, as well as “increases in leverage and acquisitions, and deterioration in operating performance, consistent with less capable boards.” One reason for this may be what has come to be known as the “golden skirt” phenomenon: Quotas make highly qualified women so sought after that they spread themselves too thin. In 2011, for example, 70 women held 300 board positions in Norway. Another unintended consequence was that a large number of companies delisted themselves from the stock exchange rather than comply with the law.

Quotas in the political arena have probably done more to put women in leadership positions than any other strategy. Political parties in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, for example, introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s. Sweden now has the fourth-highest percentage of women in parliament in the world (45 percent), while the other Nordic countries are almost as high. They have a similarly strong record on the percentage of women ministers.

As political quotas have spread, however, their significance has become more ambiguous. Quotas may be indicative of women’s overall status in Scandinavia and Rwanda, which has the highest proportion of women in parliament (56 percent) anywhere in the world and appears to be undergoing a major gender revolution. But are women — or their countries — better off in East Timor or Angola, both of which have parliaments that are more than a third female, than in similar countries without quotas? One study of quotas in Latin America found some correlation between women’s representation in elected office and the country’s position on the U.N. Gender Inequality Index in Central America, but none at all in South America. And, the authors observe, “In no case has women’s presence exceeded the threshold of the quota. Political parties generally treat quota percentages as ceilings, not floors.”

Interestingly, two OECD countries without any political — or board — quotas at all, the United States and New Zealand, have the highest proportion of women in senior management positions among the world’s most developed countries. Women’s presence — and ambition — in U.S. politics lags well behind men’s, but by the late 1990s, researchers repeatedly found that they are able to raise the same amount of money and are as likely to win as men when they do run. At any rate, quotas are partially based on the presumption that women representatives have a distinctively female perspective, which takes us to our final myth.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images



“A Woman Leader Means More Equality for Women.”

Not really. Women presidents and prime ministers, like their male counterparts, run the gamut when it comes to political and social priorities. On the progressive end of the spectrum are female leaders like former Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who spoke forcefully throughout her career about women’s rights and human rights (though even she wasn’t able to do much to get rid of her country’s gender gaps in the workplace). But on the traditional end of the spectrum are the Thatchers and Bhuttos, the Gandhis and Sheikh Hasinas, who pay little attention to what are generally considered women’s issues. Following in this tradition is South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, whose sex is of such little interest to her country that she is sometimes called the “neuter president.” (Park presides over a country that ranks a sorry 108th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.) Somewhere in the middle are leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sometimes sees eye to eye with feminists in her government and sometimes does not. She expanded day care, for example, but opposed boardroom quotas, which led to a bitter struggle with women in her own party that she ultimately lost.

One of the few quantitative studies on women leaders and women’s well-being actually finds a negative correlation between female heads of state or government and gender parity in education and income. That squares with the conclusion reached by reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky. There is “no correlation,” as Kristof wrote on his New York Times blog, “between a female president or prime minister and any improvements in girls’ education or maternal health or any other improvement in the status of women.”

“Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers,” Slaughter writes in her much-discussed article, “will we create a society that genuinely works for all women.” Presumably Sandberg would agree, but that’s not what experience has taught us. Policies that work for women who want to lean in and make it to the top don’t necessarily work as well for women who don’t, and vice versa. And just as there are tradeoffs for individual women between career and children, so too are there tradeoffs and tensions on the societal level — between family leave policies and wage gaps, between the right to part-time work and equality in the executive suite, between mandatory quotas and merit-based achievement. We really can’t have it all.

It’s possible, of course, that we simply haven’t found the right tools to end gender inequality. But it’s also possible that, whether for biological or cultural reasons or both, many women are less interested in absolute parity with men than they are in work that gives them plenty of time with their kids. Is that such a bad thing?


<p> Kay Hymowitz is William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and author of four books, including Marriage and Caste in America. </p>

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