Return of the gender gap

imagesFor decades, women scaled Gender Gap Mountain. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Women attended law school to become lawyers, not paralegals – studied for the MCAT to be doctors, not nurses. They ascended to the C-Suite and filled corner offices.

As The New America Foundation reports today, “Turns out the Mountain has more than one peak – and its climbers today seem to be stagnating on a plateau. Recently, Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College and the author of the new book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” sat down with Liza Mundy, director of New America’s Work and Family Program to discuss why America still struggles with gender equality. Women now make up 67 percent of college graduates. Four in ten American families look to a woman as their primary breadwinner (and that number is rising, according to Mundy’s book “The Richer Sex”). And yet, at least in the very upper echelons of the professional world, women hold only 15-20 percent of leadership positions. Those numbers are mirrored in the federal government, where women occupy only 20 of 100 Senate seats, comprise 17.9 percent of the House, and have yet to wage a victorious presidential campaign. Why can’t qualified and competitive women get out of what Spar calls the “16 percent Ghetto”?

“Part of the answer, both Mundy and Spar suggest, lies in a persistent cultural expectation that women should be flawless, well-rounded robots. To illustrate the point, Mundy recalled interviewing a close friend of Hillary Clinton’s for a profile back in 1999. When she asked the source how Clinton achieved balance in the early years of her career—excelling as both a mother and full-time lawyer—the friend admitted that “she was an indifferent housekeeper.” The comment betrayed an outmoded, yet still-pervasive view of gender roles: Even when women work 60-hour weeks, they’re still to blame for dirty dishes. Somewhere along the way to equality, feminism became “perfectionism.”

“Rather than getting rid of the old expectations that feminism tried to liberate us from, we’ve actually held on to the old expectations – so that girls should be sweet, and pretty, and sparkly and princesses,” Spar said. “But we’ve added to them: and they should play soccer, and be really smart, and start their own NGOs.”

“Over the last 50 years, options for women have exploded. But, as one audience member noted, the path to professional success in America is often synonymous with working overtime and making personal sacrifices. Spar worries that the new paradigm has pushed women to internalize their quest for perfection, feeling guilty when they decide to forego starting a family so that they can advance in their careers, or vice versa. Instead, women need to reclaim the “liberation” part of Women’s Liberation—to embrace their right to choose, and to try to change the systems that inhibit that freedom of choice. On this front, Spar echoed New America President and mother, Anne-Marie Slaughter: She envisions an America that values care and community advancement with the same enthusiasm it currently devotes to individualism and competitive drive.

“Of course, if all that’s going to happen, America needs to move away from viewing work-life balance as purely a women’s issue—especially if, as Mundy mentioned, legions of driven young women continue to outpace men in college. “Eventually,” she said, “Women are going to have to enter relationships in which they are the better educated spouse.” And in that case, the men of the future may soon find themselves just as invested in gender equality as generations of women before them. ”


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