How Do We Determine "Female Power?" The Economist Explores Women And The Workplace


This week, the Economist cast a critical eye toward measuring the progress of women in the workplace. But their unit of measurement appears to be more concerned with “social consequences of women’s economic empowerment” than the overall benefit to women.

How they choose to frame the issue of women’s progress is somewhat strange to me. After lauding the great leaps of progress of women (“across the rich world,” as they rightfully note) over the last fifty years, the first Economist article (“Female Power“) launches into the perils of progress:

Yet even benign change can come with a sting in its tail. Social arrangements have not caught up with economic changes. Many children have paid a price for the rise of the two-income household. Many women-and indeed many men-feel that they are caught in an ever-tightening tangle of commitments. 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.

While the Economist gives a cursory mention to the role of feminism and politics in pushing women toward the workforce, they center the analysis on the whims of the labor market, which prompts a few puzzling conclusions (or at least, puzzling to this feminist):

The rich world has seen a growing demand for women’s labour. When brute strength mattered more than brains, men had an inherent advantage. Now that brainpower has triumphed the two sexes are more evenly matched. The feminisation of the workforce has been driven by the relentless rise of the service sector (where women can compete as well as men) and the equally relentless decline of manufacturing (where they could not). The landmark book in the rise of feminism was arguably not Ms Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” but Daniel Bell’s “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society”.
Demand has been matched by supply: women are increasingly willing and able to work outside the home. The vacuum cleaner has played its part. Improved technology reduced the amount of time needed for the traditional female work of cleaning and cooking. But the most important innovation has been the contraceptive pill. The spread of the pill has not only allowed women to get married later. It has also increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills, particularly slow-burning skills that are hard to learn and take many years to pay off. The knowledge that they would not have to drop out of, say, law school to have a baby made law school more attractive.

Women were not considered to be an asset in jobs like construction and manufacturing that had physical strength requirement. However, there have been intellectual and government jobs in existence for just as long, and women were prohibited from many of these as well due to social conventions. The main idea in prohibiting women from the workplace wasn’t necessarily a dependence on physical attributes, but the idea of separate spheres. Noted legal scholar and anti-assimilation theorist Kenji Yoshino explored the position of women in the workplace in his manifesto/memoir Covering. In the section discussing demands placed on women, he explains:

The literature on sex equality is shot through with accounts of this predicament, variously described as a “double bind,” a “Catch-22,” or a “tightrope.” In many workplaces, women are pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but also to be “feminine” enough to be respected as women. (I put the adjectives “masculine” and “feminine” in quotation marks when otherwise unmodified because I use them to describe perceptions rather than realities about traits held by men and women.) The sheer mass of evidence further persuades me that demands for conformity made of women are not generic, but target them as women. I also become convinced these contradictory demands mean the story of contemporary sex discrimination is more complex than a single narrative of forced conformity to the dominant group. […]
What makes women distinctive is that the dominant group – men – regularly imposes both covering and reverse-covering demands on them. Women are uniquely situated in this way because their subordination has more generally taken a unique form. Unlike gays and racial minorities, women have been cherished by their oppressors. Men have long valued the “feminine” traits women are supposed to hold, such as warmth, empathy, and nurture.
The mind-set through which men limit women in the name of loving them is known as “separate spheres” – an ideology under which men inhabit the public sphere of work, culture, and politics, while women inhabit the private sphere of hearth and home. The two spheres ostensibly track the different characters of men and women – men are thought to be suited for the public sphere because of their “masculine” attributes, women for the private sphere because of their “feminine” ones. This ideology permits men to cherish and to confine women at the same time – women are revered, but only in the home. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville describes this arrangement with the approval typical of his period: “I have no hesitation in saying that although the American woman never leaves her domestic sphere and is in some respects very dependent within it, nowhere does she enjoy a higher station. “
For centuries, separate-spheres thinking barred women from the workplace. In 1872, the Supreme Court upheld an Illinois statue prohibiting women from practicing law. Concurring in that judgment, Justice Joseph Bradley observed women were unfit to be lawyers because of their “natural and proper timidity and delicacy.” He concluded: “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
Notice how Bradley does not exclude women by devaluing them. Instead, he underscores how much he admires women – their attributes of “timidity and delicacy” are “natural and proper” and the offices of wife and mother are “noble and benign.”

While Yoshino’s analysis appears to center white women (as women of color were not historically excluded from the workforce, and in fact, provided the bulk of domestic services for wealthier white women), he brings up an important point: many women were excluded from the workforce due to the perception of women and ability, not necessarily their actual skills. While the Economist is correct in pointing out the rise and fall of industries and its influence on the climate of the workplace, the idea that women were not motivated to invest in their own educations or acquisition of skills before the invention of the pill seems laughable. It is important not to discount how much of an influence cultural norms in society held – and how prevalent those attitudes are to this day.

The conclusion drawn about the true reason for the wage gap was equally puzzling.

The upper ranks of management consultancies and banks are dominated by men. In America and Britain the typical full-time female worker earns only about 80% as much as the typical male.
This no doubt owes something to prejudice. But the biggest reason why women remain frustrated is more profound: many women are forced to choose between motherhood and careers. Childless women in corporate America earn almost as much as men. Mothers with partners earn less and single mothers much less. The cost of motherhood is particularly steep for fast-track women. Traditionally “female” jobs such as teaching mix well with motherhood because wages do not rise much with experience and hours are relatively light. But at successful firms wages rise steeply and schedules are demanding. Future bosses are expected to have worked in several departments and countries. Professional-services firms have an up-or-out system which rewards the most dedicated with lucrative partnerships. The reason for the income gap may thus be the opposite of prejudice. It is that women are judged by exactly the same standards as men.

I am truly confused how stagnant wages “mix well with motherhood” considering that children grow and tend to require more funds to maintain them. Wages not rising generally places severe financial stress on a household – reduced hours are desired by many parents, but the trade off (less cash) is not necessarily welcome.

I also find the idea that women are judged by exactly the same standards as men particularly strange: women are still perceived as the primary caretakers of children in many societies, and are expected (and groomed) to put children first and family first. Indeed, the whole institution of “wife” is what has allowed men to achieve as much as they have – another person is running the household, taking care of their needs, attending to the children, and maintaining interpersonal relationships while the other partner is free to invest their all into their career. Most women end up taking the “second shift” – working while still carrying a disproportionate burden of housework and child rearing. If it were social acceptable for either partner to take a role in the home, we may see more advancements of women in the workforce. But due to societal ideas about the “proper” role of men, the men who support a higher earning woman are considered strange, rare creatures. In 2002, Fortune Magazine ran a feature on “Trophy Husbands” – but many husbands declined to be interviewed for the article. Fortune goes into the difficulties they had writing the article, illuminating quite a bit about how cultural attitudes toward men and women inhibit women’s progress in the workplace:

Thirteen years ago, FORTUNE wrote about trophy wives: the young, glamorous, second (or third) wives of prominent CEOs. Their only job was to lunch, party, conspicuously consume, and keep their husbands off Viagra. The men we’re talking about carpool the kids, coach the soccer team, pay the bills, pick up the dry cleaning, and fix dinner. Talk about trophy! These guys may be every working woman’s definition of trophy.
Nobody has measured how widespread this phenomenon is among well-educated, high-salaried couples. But there is clearly a dramatic shift afoot. When FORTUNE attempted this story five years ago, we had to give up. It was hard to find examples and even harder to get anyone to talk publicly about their choices. Everyone was in the closet. Now, says Doreen Toben, CFO at Verizon, “almost all the senior women [here] have husbands at home.” So do many women at Sun Microsystems. Of the 187 participants at FORTUNE’s Most Powerful Women in Business Summit last spring, 30% had househusbands. And of the 50 women on this year’s list, more than one-third have a husband at home either full- or part-time.
Some would rather discuss their quarterly numbers than their at-home husbands. Anne Mulcahy, who told FORTUNE last year that her retired husband, Joe, helped make it possible for her to do her job as chairman and CEO of Xerox, declined to participate. So did Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She is very protective of her husband and would say only that “Frank has been a huge source of support. He had a very successful career and has lots of interests outside of me and my career. He has been a rock for me; I am tremendously lucky. To describe him as a stay-at-home husband is not fair to him.” Frank Fiorina took early retirement in 1998 as a vice president of AT&T’s corporate business unit.
But among the most powerful women—and many other high-level women—this is a red-hot topic. They gossip about it. They marvel at it. They compare notes. They know which colleagues have husbands at home and which do not. They know which are married to doctors: Shelly Lazarus and Meg Whitman. (Doctors travel infrequently and can often set their own hours.) They are envious of women whose husbands have retired. Most of all they debate, How important is it to have a man at home helping you get to the top? Very important, says Dina Dublon. “My spouse would say that I probably have enough drive and ambition that I would have done this even if he weren’t there,” she says. “But there is no doubt in my mind that the extent to which I can do this is because of his willingness to be at home.”
So maybe it’s not only a glass ceiling that has kept so few women from reaching the upper tier of corporate America; only 6% of the FORTUNE 500’s very top jobs—senior vice president and above—are held by women, according to Catalyst. Maybe it’s that not enough of them have the luxury most of their male counterparts have had forever: a spouse at home. A year ago, when Catalyst asked 3,000 women in their mid-20s to mid-30s to name the biggest barriers to women’s advancement, 68% cited personal and family responsibilities. That compares with 50% who blamed lack of mentoring, 46% who said lack of experience, and just 45% who cited stereotyping of women’s roles and abilities. “A precondition to having more women in positions of power is to have more sharing in the burdens of parenthood,” says Dublon. “It is crucial.

While men may openly joke about wanting to become a “kept man,” narratives that have emerged around the shifting roles at home reveal that men face steep judgment for staying home and playing a supportive role.

However, the “Female Power” article does make one important note – as women become a ubiquitous part of the work landscape, the norms of the workplace will begin to adapt to appeal to talent – or, highly skilled women will begin to strike out on their own. And already, we are beginning to see signs of this change:

Faster change is likely as women exploit their economic power. Many talented women are already hopping off the corporate treadmill to form companies that better meet their needs. In the past decade the number of privately owned companies started by women in America has increased twice as fast as the number owned by men. Women-owned companies employ more people than the largest 500 companies combined.


Female power [The Economist]
Covering: The Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights
Quoted: Kenji Yoshino on The Gender Double Bind [Racialicious]
Trophy Husbands [Fortune]

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