Backlash: Are Women Really Getting Even?

iStock_000016828754XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“How many of you are feeling this tsunami feeling… that things are changing?” asked applied futurist Faith Popcorn during her keynote talk at Catalyst’s 50th Anniversary conference last week. Popcorn gave examples like Time Magazine’s recent cover story “The Richer Sex,” which suggests that 40% of working wives now out-earn their husbands, and last summer’s much-talked about article in The Atlantic, “The End of Men.”

Articles like these point out that the majority of college graduates around the world are women or that girls tend to perform better in school than boys. They claim that it’s only a matter of time before women become the dominant gender at home and in the workplace. They imply that we are on the verge of a zero sum ascendency of women. Really?

This kind of dialogue shifts our focus away from the here and now, the present, when women still earn less money than men for doing the same job in every industry, when women are still only 3.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, when women are still pushed out of the workforce and can’t get back in after having children, when women’s career dreams are still hampered by a societal belief that they are and should be less capable leaders than men.

The “end of men” rhetoric is aggressive and provocative. Rather than creating value, it sets us up for a fight with those who do not yet understand how inclusiveness can help companies and governments perform better, and will not agree with the urgent need address the issue. Or they simply don’t believe there is still an issue to address.

The “tsunami feeling” of change that Popcorn talked about is a great way to rally women, but without also acknowledging the headwinds we have to contend with, women will not be able to make much headway today – or, for that matter, tomorrow.

Backlash or Bringing Us Together?

That’s not to say that things are bad – women today have it better than ever before. It’s merely to point out that we’re not done yet.

The points of bias that women deal with in today’s workplace are often hard to see – getting “talked over” in meetings, being excluded from deals and conversations that take place outside the office, being expected to “take notes” for the team. The men who women compete with in the professional arena more often than not have stay-at-home wives, while most professional women are part of dual-career couples. It’s just harder.

These qualities are difficult to measure and display in a neat table or presentation – but studies with hard numbers don’t move the needle very far either. For example, as Bloomberg reported yesterday, female CFOs earn 16% less than male CFOs. Even in light of the data, the comments on the article (read them only if you want to be really depressed), are telling examples of overwhelming cultural bias and justification for inequality. “If women would just do their work as well as the men, they would be paid equally. Corporate America is nothing, if not fair. ;-p” states one enlightened reader. “It is a risk premium that women get paid less,” says another.

The fact is, many people still feel that we truly live in an equal society, where hard work can get you anywhere you want to go, and that the reason women aren’t compensated or treated equally to men is because we don’t deserve it or haven’t worked hard enough. This cultural bias is part of a blindness that causes those in power to view only those who look like themselves as real leaders.

Considering the slow progress that women are making to the top (women are still only about 16% of percent of Fortune 500 board directors, for example), it’s safe to say that this attitude is pervasive. And splashy headlines perpetuating the myth that we have reached gender equity do not help change the situation.

Opening a Dialogue

At the conference last week, Catalyst announced two new initiatives to open dialogue about gender, power, and equality.

First of all, Catalyst is partnering with the National Council for Research on Women and The White House Project to launch Get Even, a campaign to highlight the inequality women still face, but to frame the discussion in a more inclusive way.

Catalyst CEO Ilene Lang remarked, “It’s not about bringing anyone down and it’s not about getting angry. It’s about bringing everyone together.”

“Somehow old cultural biases and outmoded structures are impeding our progress,” said Linda Basch, President of the NCRW.

Tiffany Dufu, President of The White House Project, added, “Getting us even makes sense – when you have more diverse voices sitting at the table, it leads to better decisions and better outcomes for all of us.”

In a similar vein, Catalyst is launching its new social network for men, MARC (Men Advocating Real Change). Rather than excluding men from the diversity conversation, the organization realized it could get more traction around diversity by engaging men who can be champions of the movement.

Mike Otterman, Social Media Manager at Catalyst, explained how research showed that when many men hear the word “gender,” they tune out, thinking it’s a women’s issue or that it’s just not for them. Jeanine Prime, PhD, VP of Research at Catalyst, explained, “We need to be working with men in a wider sense.” Not just senior men, she continued – the group wants to work with men at mid and emerging levels as well. “The leaders of tomorrow, we need to be engaging them,” she said.

In addition to hosting real world events, MARC is an online forum for men to talk about gender issues, share best practices and tools, and talk about how they can get involved in driving gender equity.

Prime said, “Our research showed that men are really swayed by other men – we really want to engage men to be ready to be advocates.”

Otterman continued, “We’re creating a vocabulary and we want to help leverage and amplify the good guys. One of our main messages is that it’s not enough to be a good guy and go about your day.”

“It’s not about blaming – it’s about stepping up,” he added.

Both of these initiatives stand in stark contrast to aggressive media hype claiming that equity has been reached or that sexism has somehow been solved. Denial won’t get us anywhere. By creating open dialogue and inviting new voices to the conversation, we can work toward a more diverse, fair, and productive workplace.