Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It has a name, but no one wants to say it

In 1963, Betty Friedan called it "The Problem that Has No Name." Today, many call it solved. But sexism is clearly alive and well: It's just a problem no one feels like talking about anymore.

In her cover story on sexism in the workplace for the April issue of Portfolio, Harriet Rubin writes:
"This has been the hardest assignment I have ever had. For more than a decade, I've covered gender and power in the business world. I've analyzed heroes and villains, sinners and saints, and the rest of us in between. I've never had so much trouble getting people to talk to me. Nobody really wanted to get into it. Not even the people who would seem to have the most to say. In fact, those people especially would rather not mention it at all."

She goes on to illustrate how "From salary to board seats, key indicators suggest that women's advancement in corporate America has been stagnating--or even slipping--over the past few years."

Some statistics:
  • Pay Gap: "The gap between men's and women's earnings narrowed steadily in the 1980s, but since then gains seem to have been followed by a drop every couple of years. Progress slipped in 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available."
  • Leadership Pipeline: "Positions responsible for profit and loss often feed into top leadership spots. Of female corporate officers, 27.2 percent held those posts in 2007, down from 29 percent in 2006."
  • In the Boardroom: "The number of women holding Fortune 500 board seats increased steadily between 1995 and 2005 but has been essentially flat for the past three years. Women still hold only 14.8 percent of all Fortune 500 board seats."
  • At the Top: "The number of female corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies has dropped in each of the past three years. Last year, the number of firms with more than three female officers fell by 31, while the number of companies with zero female officers increased by 10."
Rubin writes:
"Mark Walsh, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Air America Radio, was surprised by these statistics. 'I'm on two public boards and a ton of private boards, and the mantra is diversity. But as I think about it, when we interview females in the mix, the offer of a board seat usually goes to the nonwhite men--Latinos and African Americans. We think, Great, we've done diversity.' He concludes, 'Women have taken a backseat. They're not being allowed to drive in terms of corporate governance.'"

Parallels in the race for the Democratic nomination can obviously be drawn, but let's not go there. What a shame that "isms" have to fight each other for the spotlight. Are we that easy to divide and conquer? History would say yes: First-wave feminism shifted from abolitionist roots based on abstract principles of equality when more tangible, i.e. popular arguments, which required the exclusion of nonwhite sisters, proved more effective in gaining votes for women's suffrage; and Margaret Sanger found more support for birth control rights when she shifted the argument from a woman's right to control her own body to the government's right to control the fertility of female immigrants. And today I hear that some hard-core Obama and Clinton supporters are saying they will vote for McCain if their favorite loses the nomination. What a shame.

My point, though, is that the feminist backlash has painted sexism a non-issue and feminism so very uncool. And the progress of generations is suffering. Let's not keep stalling the fight to fight over who has more to overcome, and let's focus on overcoming--because there is still work to be done, however unhip it may be these days.

After reading Rubin's article, I read a blurb in Marie Claire about a new book called Save the Males, in which columnist Kathleen Parker "argues that it's time to give back some of the power." She tells the magazine:

"Boys hear how awful they are day in and day out. We seem to understand that girls need high self esteem to perform in school and society, but we pretend that boys don't. Teachers need to dial back their girl-coddling, and society needs to better balance boys' needs with girls."

Just because Parker's argument seems like a breath of fresh air after years of stifling feminist rhetoric, that doesn't make it correct--or revolution-worthy (although I have to admit I haven't read her book). I don't know about boys' self esteem problems in elementary schools today, but I do know the person doing all the talking in my 200-student Women's Studies 101 lecture was the one and only male--extremely confident in his many opinions about women's issues. A complementary statistic to the blurb is that "60 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in this country in 2012 will go to women." But as Rubin's article indicated, women may be graduating from college, getting jobs, even achieving promotions--but the top earners and decision-makers continue to be predominantly male--and that pesky glass ceiling seems to actually be lowering rather than shattering, contrary to what everyone expected.

I had the luxury of reading Rubin's article in glossy print, but it's also available online--along with 50-plus (when I posted this blog) heated comments, many of which illustrate how much many people wish us "angry feminists" would just shut the hell up (reader quote: "God, will the feminist whining ever stop?"), and some of which insightfully point out how the article should have also blamed women's backslide on corporate America's failure to provide and promote a work-life balance that is attractive to women (and men!) who don't want to put their careers ahead of their families.

Nevertheless, it's a good read, although I enjoyed it more without the bitter and sexist comments attached to the online version, which almost dissuaded me from writing this blog. I have to keep reminding myself that just because an issue or opinion is "uncool," just because people don't want to hear it or attack you for naming it, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or shouldn't be discussed: In fact its unpopularity is precisely why we must refuse to shut the hell up.


Caroline said...

I am so sorry I'm so late getting around to reading this. Let me just start by saying - AMEN! I find it so depressing that your brilliant posts that take a look at sexism in our society always get the least comments. I guess it's more fun to talk about trash TV or what happened over the weekend at the bar. As true as that is, I think it points to exactly why feminism appears to be dead. Sadly, I don't think most young women these days give a crap about these issues. Which is unfortunate, because, while we're sitting around watching trash TV and partying all weekend, there are people who are motivated and mobilized working to reverse the very little progress women have made in this society. I suppose it'll take things getting much worse before people wake up and start working to make them better....

Pam said...

Young women today take their take their rights for granted. They don't know what suffering & sacrifice their sisters went through to give them the right to vote. To give them a voice. And they abuse that voice by perpetuating the opinion that feminism is uncool & un attractive. That women exist to attract men. And if that's true then we still have no voice. It may seem to someone 25 years old that 1920 was a very long time ago. It was not. My mother was alive at a point in American history when women were not considered adults in our country.

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