In today’s labor force, only slightly more women than men have a college education; yet far fewer (33%) hold leadership positions. While women overtaking men in education bodes well for gender equality, the current gender gap in leadership positions is a reminder of how much harder women have to work to get the same opportunities as women. men.
Gender equality remains a mixed bag for women. On the one hand, progress has been far too slow. On the other hand, there are still too many setbacks, foremost among which are the grim statistics of women leaving the workforce during the pandemic.
Progress has taken one step forward and two steps back
Culturally, women have both won and lost in recent years, but lately the losses seem to outweigh the gains. As we approach the fifth anniversary of #MeToo, we are reminded that sexual harassment and sexual assault is neither a gray area nor a male birthright.
Nevertheless, the backlash against women for finally holding men accountable has been inexorable. In this new climate, some men reported that being alone with women was risky, while others spoke out about the threats they face now that cancel culture has channeled the rage of people hungry for change and historically deprived. While both of these narratives reveal vulnerability, they also wrap around entrenched negative female stereotypes.
At the same time, the anti-capitalist revival movement bared its fangs. Under the banner of “protecting excellence”, venture capitalists and businessmen have launched organized actions to marginalize companies seeking to create greater diversity. This not-too-hidden effort to ensure the primacy of men in boardrooms and other executive settings finds additional energy in the resurgence of “bro” lingo and in areas of corporate culture like technology and finance.
In the court of everyday life, the anti-abortion political crusade, fully energized by the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, continues to cast an aura of impropriety on women’s rights.
The empowerment of women is a long-standing feature of today’s culture. But while women have always been expected to fulfill the role of nurturers, the growing number of legislatures and political figures that go too far to limit women’s rights further reinforces the narrative that women are not cannot make decisions alone. Take, for example, women in states that have banned abortion who need access to drugs that are also used to manage pregnancies. As a result of these recent changes, these women must now undergo additional examinations and clearances, a process that deprives them of both their rights and their dignity.
Far too many structural inequalities remain
As the culture wars escalate, the structural gaps that continue to separate women from men are more likely to be overlooked. Yet not only do we need to have them clearly in mind to remember all there is to do, but to understand that current inequalities cannot self-correct. While women carry an additional burden and their ability to choose, influence and make decisions remains as artificial as it is today, the status quo will prevail. The facts are indisputable.
The rate of domestic and care work remains significantly higher among women than among men. Even in white-collar or intellectual jobs, women take on, on average, 12 extra hours of this work. In practical terms, this gap means that most working women barely finish after normal working hours. On the other hand, compared to women, men are more likely to have a partner at home who takes care of their practical life.
Notably, women are more likely to perform unpaid emotional labor in their jobs. They frame and support at a higher rate. But they also deal with men’s emotional instability, including mood swings, machiavellian social interactions, destructive leadership behaviors, and inappropriate behaviors. Paradoxically, while women often have to do double duty and self-regulate for themselves and their male colleagues, they are branded with the emotionally unstable label.
There are also the material consequences of partiality. During the pandemic years alone, 34% of men working remotely with children at home received a promotion. However, the promotion rate is only 9% among women in the same situation. Similarly, compared to 26% of men, only 13% of women received a salary increase. Even though both men and women worked remotely, women were “considered to be” at home with the children, leading employers to assume they would work less than their male colleagues and reward them at a rate inferior.
Pandemic or not, research has found that even when women achieve higher performance ratings, compared to their male colleagues, organizations downplay women’s potential and future contributions. In other words, it doesn’t matter how hard women work; somehow their efforts are minimized.
To make matters worse, since women are less likely to turn around, organizations tend to promote men over women. This means that while men’s disloyalty is rewarded with promotions, women’s engagement earns them the “helper” role.
Finally, despite all the attention the #MeToo movement has received in recent years, sexual harassment remains all too common in the workplace. Recent allegations involving Tesla, Goldman Sachs, the American football team and other organizations confirm that labor costs for women also lead to the acceptance of work practices that endanger their safety and dignity.
To ignore inequalities is to pretend they don’t exist
In “The Years”, her 2008 novel, Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature, writes: “At every moment, alongside the things that it seems natural to do and say, and alongside those that we are told to think – no less through books or subway advertisements than through funny stories – are other things that society unknowingly stifles.
When it comes to how today’s culture affects women, silence and pretense take many forms. There is the pretense of those who say or believe that banning abortion does not create risks or profound negative consequences for women.
But there is an even richer claim in the narrative that current inequality stems from women’s preferences and lower ambition for leadership or leadership positions. There is also the myth of an entirely meritocratic and non-partisan work culture focused on “excellence”.
Yet whether we pretend or not, the current status quo is not gender neutral. And without intentional efforts to address the recent backlash against equality and the persistent gaps women face in their daily lives, the window of opportunity for women could very well be closing.
Those efforts, noted Apple CEO Tim Cook, must start with creating greater diversity. We cannot get ahead of them on the pretext that there are not enough female talents; nor, according to Melinda French Gates, should we conclude that they can be complete without addressing the root cause of the problem.
Indeed, while a multi-pronged approach is essential, the cycle of stereotyping women, denying them their basic rights and limiting their ability to make and influence decisions must be broken at the grassroots. And it can only be broken through a concerted effort to elect and appoint more women leaders.