ONE OF MY dearest friends manages the infection prevention and control unit at one of the largest hospitals in Portland, Oregon. She’s only 31, but she’s worked there for more than a decade, and her job pretty much kicks ass. Kicks little organisms’ asses, that is. When there’s a report of an E. coli outbreak, it’s her team who cares for sickened patients, determines their severity and offers measures for disease control. It’s her team members who speak to the media, who calmly explain the situation to the public. Needless to say, she’s also one of the cleanest people I know, always the first to happily whip out bleach for a spill or hand sanitizer when we’re on the go. But that’s besides the point.
She, like many other intelligent women, has dreams of one day becoming upper management. Though she loves her job, she doesn’t only want to be a middle manager, a direct supervisor of a little team. One day, she wants to help manage the whole hospital, to analyze high-level problems and chart a vision for the company’s future. She’s the youngest one by far in her group, but she says the older clinicians whom she manages don’t mind at all. When the public water supply gets suddenly contaminated by bacteria, her job is to make their job easier, and they’re glad to take her orders.
One of the many reasons why I admire her is her unusual approach to becoming a better leader. “I’m taking an improv class!” she announced over margaritas during her recent stay with me in Palm Springs. Wait… what? Improv? Like making people laugh? “No, it’s not necessarily about making people laugh,” she explained. Her class is about building layers of responses to different role-playing situations. Sometimes they can be funny, but that’s not the ultimate point. Her goal? Becoming a more natural public speaker, especially for key hospital meetings, as well a flexible manager who can respond tactfully to her team. I’m positive those improv skills will also one day help her in an arena — executive management at major companies — still dominated by men.
The barriers to working women are an oft-played tune. So often played, that sometimes it’s easy to become deaf to the clamor about gender inequality. Even in our modern age, not much has changed. We know that in 2012, women earned 77 cents on the dollar for the same job held by a man, according to median earnings reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. And it was worse if you were a black woman (64 cents) or a Hispanic woman (55 cents). For some reason, and the answer why is still something people are studying, a significant wage gap persisted despite industry, occupation, race, marital status and attainment of higher education.
And you know what the disconcerting part is? That wage gap of 23 cents has stayed roughly the same, hovering maybe 1 or 2 cents off in some years, since 2002.
Now that’s just speaking in generalities. That’s only the median income for all women in America. When we narrow in on the women who are not simply your average worker, but your boss’s boss’s boss, we see even greater disparities in female leadership. And beyond that, we see the conversation about gender equality shaped by an attitude that doesn’t appear to be overtly sexist, but actually is.
Take, for example, this spring’s controversy over the firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson. She was the first woman to ever lead the helm of our country’s most prodigious media outlet. After she was fired, the media world — because the media loves covering media issues — ignited a series of discussions about our society’s attitudes toward men versus women in high leadership roles. Why was she fired? Was it merely because she was a woman? Or was it something more complex than simply the fact she has two X chromosomes?
For an exhaustive background of who-the-hell-is-Jill-Abramson, there’s a fascinating article in the New Yorker from 2011. Good longread for your lunch break, but here are the details in a shortcut. Abramson: Harvard grad, book author, senior editor at The Washington Post, managing editor at the Times, then finally the top chief of the paper. She was an advocate for younger female journalists, and actively praised them when they got promotions. Then, later, there were clashes with the company’s CEO, her objection to her pay compared to former (male) executive editors, tension with her managing editor, and finally, the exit.
Some said she was a tough boss, hard to work with, etc. — and that’s the whole inherent point. She was fired over “management issues,” which is not sexual discrimination. But the criticisms of her personality, of the way she managed the paper, were cast in a gendered light. If she were a man, being called a tough boss and speaking assertively isn’t nearly as derogatory of a term. As Vox noted, Recode’s Kara Swisher and Politico’s Susan Glasser have both written about this problem: Sexism isn’t always obvious. It can be a subtle manipulation, such as an exclusion of your thoughts presented as “We just didn’t like your idea,” a patronization of your intelligence, an expectation about your looks, an expectation of a romantic date — or more — or an exclusion from the boys club. Just because we’re not having a discussion about obvious sexism — pay gap for the same job, sexual harassment in the workplace (read: Tinder’s marketing exec Whitney Wolfe and her accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination)— doesn’t mean that sexism doesn’t lurk. This comic pretty much says it all.
Women still make up a small fraction, 17 percent, of the boards of Fortune 500 companies. Setting quotas for women at the boards of public companies doesn’t seem to address the root problem, according to regulations made in Norway and at least five other European countries. The change didn’t catapult more women to the top, nor did it close the wage gap. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the 30% Club, a group of companies voluntarily appointing women to make up at least 30 percent of their boards. Perhaps not enough time has passed yet in Europe to discern with any real precision the impact of the quota law.
This leads me to suspect that simply setting numbers for women representation at executive levels isn’t enough. Surely, continued advocacy for paid family leave, daycare support and other office policies is much needed. But judging by the talk about Abramson, and the malicious stories that keep popping up in the tech world about women in high leadership positions, there is something else underneath, in the way that we continue to address women in leadership (and women in general), that is preventing them from breaking the glass ceiling. Judging by the growing number of women who are outpacing men in earning college degrees, it’s not that there isn’t enough of a desire, or an effort to “lean in.”
I suspect it has more to do with a real attitude change about the persistent perception of a woman’s hard-earned merit and skills as dependent upon her gender. When that attitude changes, I hope that more talented women such as my friend will have fewer obstacles to their dream of one day leading a top company.
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