Columns

Corvese ’15: For gender equality, it’s more than money

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address, calling 2014 a “breakthrough year for America”  and condemning the partisan gridlock that has run rampant for much of his presidency.

While the address is certainly a positive way to communicate the government’s goals, it is largely an outlet for an abundance of hopeful rhetoric — a feature that becomes especially clear when he calls for an end to gender inequality in the workplace.

“I believe when women succeed, America succeeds,” said Obama to a round of applause, shortly after calling the fact that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes “an embarrassment.” As a student and working woman, I don’t disagree with this statement. I’m additionally aware that the State of the Union is not the State of American Gender Equality. But workplace differences for men and women have implications that go far beyond wages and salaries.

Despite President Obama’s optimism, gender inequality in the workplace cannot be solved by wage legislation alone.

That 77 cents is an alarming statistic, one that draws an image of a sinister, male employee intentionally handing his female employees checks that pay only 77 percent of her colleagues’. It specifically refers to percent annual wages, where the gender gaps in weekly and hourly wages reflect other trends: differences of 19 cents and 14 cents, respectively.  Raising the minimum wage to the proposed $10.10 may help close the gap, but cancelling the difference is not the ultimate solution for women’s success.

Given these numbers, there is little overall doubt that American women earn less than their male counterparts, and Obama’s speech fails to recognize the causes of this.

Women have different jobs than men. One of the most notable reasons for this is motherhood. If a woman wants to devote time to being a mother, she may not be able to simultaneously work in a demanding industry with higher paying positions. Obama stated in his address that a woman “deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job” — a position that, for many women, would be more feasible if paid maternity leave was guaranteed.

Another reason for career differences between men and women is the working environments themselves. Though female employment increased over the course of the 20th century, many industries are still male-dominated, potentially creating barriers for interested women. Financial services, one of the nation’s highest-paying industries, is often referred to as a “boy’s club.”  A recently published Yale study found that scientists were more likely to hire a man than a woman with identical qualifications. And Obama’s own Congress itself is skewed in favor of men — only 18.5 percent of the members of the 113th Congress are women.

Obama’s words may be powerful, but are they enough to change the fervently divided minds of Congress? The GOP selected Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who is known for her support of hard-working women, to deliver the party’s response to the State of the Union. But she and other Republicans also supported cuts to birth control funding and social services  — services that are necessary if women are to remain healthy while holding demanding jobs.

Even if the GOP supports women in the workplace, we should not settle for those views if they neglect women’s rights in other areas. Obama and Congress should consider whether men and women can ever be truly equal while these inequalities remain so stark.

If Obama truly wants women to succeed, his efforts should include more than raising wages. He could take a variety of paths, possibly looking to initiatives designed to introduce more women to STEM fields or other training programs that specifically target women. First Lady Michelle Obama is a strong advocate for female participation in these fields, and here at Brown, groups such as Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) and Women in Computer Science (WICS) help women in these career tracks. Advocacy and mentorship efforts such as these should gain more traction on the national level to increase equality in these industries.

Most importantly, he should call upon career-driven men and women to propel this change. Women in leadership positions should mentor other women. Men should stop resisting the fights for gender equality and treat women as equals rather than subordinates. Cultural norms and institutional sexism make the latter more difficult to accomplish, but a change in men’s attitudes will be necessary to increase hiring as well as respect for women. After all, the last thing we want is for men and women to take part in endless conflicts like the Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

In medicine, prevention is typically favored over a cure — why invest so much in treating a problem when it’s cheaper to just prevent it in the first place? For women in the workplace, treatments such as increasing the minimum wage and closing the wage gap are absolutely necessary to alleviate inequality.

But Obama’s State of the Union thoughts on women workers fall short on prevention. Solutions and prevention should occur in tandem. Whether these will occur due to congressional cooperation or Obama exercising his executive power has yet to be determined. For those of us not at our nation’s capital, though, we must take it upon ourselves to critically examine the causes and consequences of gender workplace inequality.

 

Gabriella Corvese doesn’t want to join a boy’s club and can be reached at gabriella_corvese@brown.edu.

  • TheRationale

    You forgot “patriarchy”

  • Brown Senior

    The 77% statistic is yet again Obama misleading the American people. In reality, the vast majority of this gap is due to women holding jobs that pay less. Median US Female Income/Median US Male Income =77%, approx. Women act in different ways than men. We should in no way expect them to have the same median income. There have been studies done that show if you control for qualification, educational background, age, etc — women make 90-96% of what men make (fact check me: http://www.nber.org/papers/w11240.pdf). Sure, there is still a gap. BUT not even close to Obama’s misleading statistic. Obama’s argument should have been that society pushes women down certain career paths (which you cover in your article), not that employers significantly discriminate. Hard to have a debate until you view the FACTS.

    • Anonymous

      *President Obama