Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Forget the binders!

Buzz phrase of the week?  "Binders full of women."  I admit, it's sexy, it's just the type of meme that grips this country on the eve of an election.  A cute hash tag.  But the focus on such a phrase completely distracts from the responses to, I believe, the only question directly focused on women's issues in either of the two debates.  And it's an important one! That is, in what NEW ways do the nominees intend to rectify the gender pay gap?   I don't think either of them really answered it (surprise).  Do women in this country make less money than men?  Yes, absolutely.  But WHY?  Well one theory is that women are being paid less and promoted less frequently across the board simply because of their gender.  But is this type of systemic discrimination with regard to pay actually occurring today?  Many would say no.  The data tends to show that women in the same jobs as men are now generally being paid the same as their male counterparts.  So, Harry and Sally, both full-time chemical engineers at Company X with similar educational backgrounds and years of experience are making the same salaries.  The OFCCP (an agency dedicated to enforcing equal employment opportunity among companies who do business with the government) has been focused on finding systemic gender pay discrimination for years and has found very little. 

So if systemic discrimination isn't to blame, what explains it?  Well, some would argue that it's because women generally choose lower paying jobs (remember, the "wage gap" figure is just comparing median full-time earnings regardless of specific jobs, so if most women are choosing lower-paying jobs than men, then obviously women will earn less than men as a whole).  Ah, well this is interesting and begs the question...what makes women choose lower-paying jobs?  Are we hard-wired to want to be secretaries instead of executives?  Well F no - women have been paving the way over the past 40 years to create opportunities for us to become executives, doctors, lawyers, politicians.  Clearly, many of us want to have higher-level jobs.  The problem then?  Our pesky f'n ovaries.  Unfortunately, the Lilly Ledbetter Act did not change the fact that women are still the ones who bear children, nurse their babies, and take on the majority of the child-rearing duties.  Working mothers, on average, end up with about two-thirds of the house/child-rearing responsibilities in dual-working-parent families.  So what often happens is that a woman will work her ass off in school and in her career only to hit a point where she is presented with a few choices:  do I continue working 60 hour weeks to move ahead in my career and accept that that means less time raising my children, or do I scale back or even switch careers so I can be more involved with my kids?  Maybe I just wait to have kids, but then will it be too late?  Maybe I should have just chosen an "easier" 9-5 job instead?  These are tough choices, and many women who want the highest-level (and therefore highest paying) jobs out there end up opting to scale back or switch careers to chase the elusive "work-life balance", while taking a pay cut.  Many women do not even have these choices - they are forced to continue to work long hours/multiple jobs in order to feed their families, even if it means not getting an education (and therefore not really advancing) and not giving sufficient attention to their kids (bad for everyone).

Our society does not acknowledge this struggle for working moms and how it affects pay inequality (and a host of other issues).  If it did, then at the forefront would be policies designed to make the workplace more flexible, to allow for paid leave and to not penalize women who (by the nature of those pesky ovaries) ultimately have to take more time off work or be on reduced schedules.  We are able to get the jobs men get (thanks to many women who came before us) and I think we start off being paid to do the same work (thanks to legislation like the Equal Pay Act), but until government/company/society makes it easier for women to advance their careers after they have families (and this might mean giving more flexibility to the dads too! gasp!), there won't be pay equality.  (By the way, I of course realize that women today are often the bread-winners in a family and that men are taking on more and more responsibilities at home.  But the reality is that (at least for now) it's usually the other way around and it's more of a women's issue at this point.  )

That brings us to the debate. Mitt did bring up workplace flexibility in response to the question and I was chomping at the bit for more.  That's great he personally made an effort to hire women on his cabinet and lets his chief of staff get home to make dinner, but where is the policy?  Obama focused most of his response on the educational aspect (ok that helps, but not women-specific), systemic discrimination (arguably doesn't exist) and the Lilly Ledbetter Act he got passed (really doesn't do much except expand procedural rights to enforce pay discrimination issues).  In the end their responses transformed into an "easier" debate about health care and funding for Planned Parenthood.  And, by the next day, all we were left with were binders full of women. 

1 comment:

  1. Well written, well informed and even handed with no political slant given to either candidate. I like.