More than Half the Sky: The Status of Women and Work

When my stay-at-home mom read Betty Friedan’s feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, it shifted her worldview about what was possible for her, and she went back to work in the early 70s. The trend that her generation started has continued over the course of my lifetime. It was never a question of whether I would work, but in what field.

And, after building a career in market research while working for an all-male-owned firm, I now have my own company and most of my employees are women. That is my progress.

As we discussed in a recent post, COVID-19 appears to be threatening some of the progress that women made over the course of my lifetime.

In light of the recent setback, I wanted to take a step back and look at the big picture: What kind of progress have women made collectively? Where are we stalled, and what’s standing in the way?


Women are Underrepresented at the Top

In January, the Labor Department made a big deal out of the fact that women now make up more than half of the U.S. workforce, and the majority of new jobs created are going to women. Despite the inroads in the labor force in general, women remain significantly underrepresented at the top. Although we account for over half of all U.S. workers, women only make up 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Just about everywhere you look, you see this same pattern, albeit to different degrees:

  • Women comprise 88% of all healthcare workers, but only 4% of healthcare CEOs.[i]
  • While 36% of practicing lawyers and 52% of law students are women, only 19% of law firm partners in the U.S. are women.
  • Women comprise over 50% of the U.S. electorate, but just 24% of the U.S. Congress.
  • And, of course, there has never been a female President of the United States, and the door has closed on 2020.

Persistent gender disparity is not unique to the United States. According to a recent UN report on global gender inequality, “Despite remarkable progress in some areas, no country in the world—rich or poor—has achieved gender equality.”  Wherever you go, “the higher the power and responsibility, the wider the gender gap.”

Gender inequality at work has economic consequences. Overall, women in the U.S. earn about 20% less on the dollar than men. This even holds true when you control for position. For example, male equity partners in law firms earn 27% more on average than their female counterparts.

Women have made significant inroads in just about all areas of the U.S. workforce and economy when it comes to their participation, but not when it comes to power and financial renumeration. Those are still concentrated with men.

The reasons for this continued disparity at the top are complex and often subtle. A study about gender inequality in law firms found two underlying barriers to women rising to the top:

  1. Unequal access to the types of experiences and opportunities that lead to success; and
  2. Implicit gender bias that influences everything from family leave policies to case assignments, to compensation.[ii]

As the owner of a women-owned company that primarily employs women, I have controlled for this to some extent within my own little world. And, I have different values, and run my business differently from many male-owned businesses. We are much more collaborative, more open to each other’s ideas, and more willing to shift directions if things aren’t going the way we hoped or expected. I also truly value work-life balance and want the same for my employees. We don’t always succeed, but we often do. Of course, there are tradeoffs in terms of both volume and revenue, but these are tradeoffs that I am willing to make. I know there are many other female business owners who feel the same.

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, women-owned businesses make up 42% of all U.S. businesses today, but account for just 4% of all business revenues. While there are no doubt numerous causes of this revenue gap, the different priorities and values of women business owners is probably one of them. True equality should make space for alternative business models that don’t necessarily maximize profits at the expense of other values. Maybe we even need a new yardstick for success.


Household Duties Still Divide Along Gender Lines

In addition to persistent gender inequality at work, married couples in the U.S. still generally divide household duties along gender lines, and women continue to carry the load when it comes to cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, meal preparation, childcare, and elder care.  This is true at my home, too. While my husband does more than my father did, I still do all of the shopping and cooking. I happen to enjoy cooking, but it is stressful and tedious to plan for and make dinner every night, and I often wonder why I don’t just buy a rotisserie chicken every week.

And it’s just the two of us. The demands on women go up exponentially when caring for children or an aging parent. On average, US women spend 10.5 more hours per week than men do on childcare, cooking and housework.

It would be nice to think that gender inequality will improve with each new generation. However, while research finds that young men today are more open to women working and are doing more childcare these days than they used to, even young couples are largely sticking to traditional gender roles when it comes to managing the household.

In other words, women are now doing over half of the paid work in the U.S. and are also still doing the majority of the housework, childcare, and elder care. With all of the barriers and demands that women face, it is no wonder that women are finding it difficult to climb the ladder (if there actually is a ladder). And, as one of the amazingly talented and busy women in my book group said, “No wonder we’re all so tired.”

Big picture: Since my mother and so many of her peers first went back to work in the 1970s, women have made significant inroads into the labor force, as employees, managers and even small business owners. When my mom went back to work, she got a job with the Chicago Public School system, so her hours and vacation schedule largely coincided with her kids’. My dad didn’t have to make many sacrifices. By contrast, my husband and I both took a big risk so that I could start a business, and, as a business owner, I do have more control over my work life than my mom did as an employee of a large institution. But, we’re still largely working within a system that was created by men and is still run by men. And, gender norms and expectations are slow to change—both at work and at home.

Like other women, I celebrate the strides that we have made in my generation, and getting in the game is half the battle. But we still have a long way to go to reach gender parity at work and at home. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we didn’t think we’d have to carry more than our share just to stay in the game, or that the ceiling isn’t really made of glass.

Those of us who are in a position to do so should challenge our assumptions about what’s possible or, even better, what’s desirable, so that we can keep things moving forward for the next generation of women. Maybe it’s time to reread The Feminine Mystique.

[i] Luce, C.B., Hewlett, S.A., Kennedy, J.T., & Sherbin, L. (2015). The power of the purse: Engaging women decision makers for healthy outcomes. Center for Talent Innovation.

[ii] Liebenber, R., & Scharf, S. (2019). Walking out the door: The facts, figures and future of experienced women lawyers in private practice. American Bar Association.

©2021 Willow Research. All Rights Reserved.