In political terms, it was a good year for American women. Female voters were a decisive factor in the presidential race, with 55 percent casting ballots for President Barack Obama, vs. 44 percent for Mitt Romney; the only year the spread was higher was in 1996, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. A record number of female candidates ran for national office—18 for the Senate, up from the 2010 high of 14, and 166 for the House of Representatives, vs. 141 in 2004—which means the 113th Congress will have at least 98 female members, the most ever, including a record 20 Senators. “We hope that this 20 percent will make a difference in the macaroni-and-cheese issues that we want to focus on, along with the macro issues,” Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 8.
Mikulski and her colleagues have reason to celebrate the female power surge, but those hard-won electoral victories should be kept in perspective. While the sweep of women into office is encouraging to anyone who believes that Washington is badly in need of fresh ideas, not to mention a political class that better reflects the population at large, there’s one area where it’s unlikely to make a difference, at least in the near future: the workplace.
For many working women, the most revealing moment of this political season came during the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16. A 24-year-old teacher named Katherine Fenton asked both candidates what they planned to do about the reality that women still earn, on average, 23 percent less than men. Obama cited the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first major piece of legislation he signed after taking office, which makes it easier for employees to sue employers for discrimination based on disparities in pay. Romney seemed dumbfounded, rambling about how as governor of Massachusetts he’d searched out qualified females to hire, flipping through “binders full of women” like a bachelor shopping for a mail-order bride.
The ridicule Romney earned for that exchange obscured the fact that neither man attempted to address how to close the pay gap now. This failure was stunning considering that women comprise 47 percent of the workforce and earn more college degrees than men. The number of dual-income households in which women are the primary breadwinner reached 29 percent in 2009, reflecting a radical upending of the traditional model. Women are an increasingly vital part of the workforce—yet, despite talk of the downfall of men, they still don’t come close to economic parity. Obama’s answer in particular highlights the widely held belief that there’s only so much Washington can do.
A mini-industry has sprung up around the question of why women don’t go as far, and earn less, than their male counterparts. But the answer is actually straightforward. After accounting for experience and education, as well as occupation—male-dominated fields tend to be higher-paying than female-dominant ones—the pay gap falls from 23 percent to about 9 percent, according to Cornell University labor economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn. Outright discrimination plays a part, but a larger proportion of the disparity can be attributed to the hit women take for absorbing most of the child-care duties that crop up at home, a burden one might call the “caregiver tax.”
The answer to Fenton’s question is thus only partly about discrimination (as Obama suggested) and has almost nothing to do with the failure of managers to identify qualified women (in Romney’s formulation). Instead, says Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University who’s researched gender and the labor market, “The problem she’s concerned about is almost entirely rooted in the fact that women take care of children a lot more than men.” (Women also shoulder more of the burden of caring for siblings, grandparents, and in-laws.) There are “differences in the ways in which men and women respond to competition, bargain, search for jobs, and so on,” says Goldin. Compared with the caregiver burden, however, “everything that I have seen and have done using the best data on the planet indicates that everything else is second order.”
These issues were barely mentioned during the presidential campaign. The U.S. remains one of the only industrialized nations not to guarantee mothers (or fathers, for that matter) some paid time off after the birth of a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for pregnancy or other reasons, but it falls short on several fronts: It’s too brief (Germany, Canada, and many other countries offer up to 12 months of subsidized leave), and it excludes vast segments of the workforce employed by small companies that don’t qualify or who couldn’t afford to take it anyway.
When it comes to taking care of the kid after it’s born, the situation is no better: Most working parents must navigate an expensive landscape of day-care centers and nannies with few clues about the quality of what they’re paying for. “The investment that the United States makes in early childhood care and education pales by comparison to the investments being made by other countries,” writes Jane Waldfogel in “International Policies Toward Parental Leave and Child Care,” published by the Future of Children, a collaboration between the Brookings Institution and Princeton University.
More family-friendly public policies in these two areas would make a difference, but they only go so far. Reaching true economic and professional equality between the sexes will require a re-imagining of workplace culture—which continues to penalize women who need flexible schedules, even as it actively disincentivizes men from assuming more duties at home, lest they step off the career track. The attention generated by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and Yahoo!/ticker] Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer’s two-week maternity leave, reflect the broad desire for a change. “Employers have an increasing incentive to address work-family issues,” Blau says. “This is disproportionately important to women, but it’s also important to men.”
Much like the Republican Party, companies are facing changing demographics, and the sooner they embrace them, the stronger they’ll be. “I call this the business case for gender diversity,” says Iris Bohnet, academic dean and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Bohnet mentions several studies, including one by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, showing that companies with more women on their boards perform better. Increasingly, women are better-equipped to perform essential jobs, so businesses need to adjust to their needs. “In many ways we have a mid-20th century workplace for a mid-21st century workforce,” Goldin says.
In some cases, change is forced upon a profession from the inside. Pediatric medicine, for instance, used to be a primarily male specialization, yet women now comprise 57 percent of pediatricians and 70 percent of pediatric residents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And, Goldin points out, 35 percent to 40 percent of female pediatricians work fewer than 35 hours per week, a drastic shift. “It happened because as a lot more women became pediatricians, a lot more shopped around for more predictable hours and more ability to have fewer and more flexible hours,” Goldin says. Pharmacy and veterinary medicine have shown similar trends.
At the other end of the earnings spectrum are nursing home workers, who tend to be paid by the hour. If one of those workers needs to miss an hour of work one day, she—“it’s almost always a she,” Goldin says—is often told not to bother coming in at all, losing a whole day’s pay. A group at Harvard is experimenting with ways to manage employee schedules that would allow greater flexibility. Instead of a fixed group of 25 workers, for example, a facility could hire 28, with more fluid scheduling. The arrangement could benefit the employees and give the nursing home a more stable workforce.
Katherine Fenton may not have received a satisfying answer to her question, but that doesn’t mean answers are out of reach. Fixing the pay gap will demand more progressive public policies as well as businesses to modernize their cultures to accommodate both halves of the workforce. This isn’t about being generous; it’s self-interest. We shouldn’t need a president to tell us that.