The Mirage of Professional Gender Equality

June 19, 2007

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The 21st century has been called the Woman's Century. Hillary Clinton is running for President, women are playing stronger roles in the workplace and the female profile is rising in many professional fields. So why does no one seem shocked that gender discrimination still lingers in the workplace today?

Without doubt, discrimination in global business today persists, whether it's based on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or, of course, gender.

We've come a long way since the days when male executives expected women in the workplace to stay quiet and passive while fetching coffee. But not far enough, sadly. Although much more subtle, workforce and workplace barriers still persist.

Not only do these biases continue to fuel disparity and tension in basic human relations (and human rights), they are damaging the workforce and the workplace — and by extension, innovation and competitiveness in industry and business.

In April 2006, The San Jose Mercury News published an editorial by Belle Wei, dean of the college of engineering at San Jose State University, in which she claimed, "There's a widespread societal presumption that women have made tremendous inroads into the engineering and computing ranks starting back in the 1970s." (See: Upping the Estrogen in the Engineering Talent Pool)

In the United States alone, women received about 38 percent of the computer science bachelor's degrees awarded in 1985, the peak year. In 2003, the figure was 28 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. At universities that also offer graduate degrees in computer science, only 17 percent of the field's bachelor's degrees in the 2003-2004 academic year went to women, according to the Taulbee Survey, conducted annually by an organization for computer science research.

Yet "the choice of major is not the full story," according to American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation President Barbara O'Connor.

Gender Pay Gap Previous studies have found that more women than men are earning college degrees and that the salaries of college-educated women have risen much faster than those of male graduates. Yet two reports released in April 2007 should have fired up the debate over the gender pay gap and whether women still face real discrimination in the workforce or are making personal choices that lower their pay relative to men's pay.

According to the AAUW's "Behind the Pay Gap" report, the pay gap is very real and not even a degree from a top university can close it:

Just one year out of college, women working full time already earn less than their male colleagues, even when they work in the same field. Ten years after graduation, the pay gap widens.

"Women have made significant educational gains — they even tend to get better grades than men. Women are working hard to balance the roles of work and family," according to AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Lisa Maatz. "Despite all this, the gap still exists."

Analyzing U.S. Department of Education data on 19,000 men and women, the AAUW found that one year out of college, women in 1994 earned 80 percent of what their male counterparts made — "even when they work in the same field." By 2003, the comparative figure dwindled to 69 percent of men's incomes.

In Canada, women working on a full-time, full-year basis had average earnings of $36,500 in 2003 — or 71 percent what their male counterparts made. Moreover, according to the fifth edition of the compendium Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, released in March 2006, the gap between the earnings of women and men has not changed substantially in the past decade.

As noted above, the AAUW is one of two reports that should have fired up debate. Yet, as Sue Hutchinson at The San Jose Mercury News points out, "more jolting than the statistics is that they seemed to surprise no one."

Hutchinson writes of the report:

Even when AAUW researchers allowed for factors such as lower-wage careers that women tend to choose and leaving the workforce to have children, the wage disparity persisted: Women one year out of college made 5 percent less than men and the gap more than doubles, to 12 percent, when men and women are 10 years out of college.

The study was released to coincide with this year's Equal Pay Day, which marks the number of extra days a woman must work in addition to the prior year to match what a man earned in one year.

Mother's Pay The second recent report, from the Labor Department, shows more married women — with and without college degrees — opting out of the workforce when their children are young. According to the study, "The proportion of mothers in the labor force had been trending down since 2000, when it was 72.3 percent."

The labor force participation rate for all mothers, at 70.9 percent, was little changed in 2006; it most recently peaked at 72.3 percent in 2000. The participation rate of married mothers (68.6 percent) was also about unchanged in 2006.

No doubt balancing a career with raising kids can be quite challenging, but the good news for working mothers is that today's parents are finding it pays to ask the boss for a break in one's schedule. A survey done by the publishers of Working Mother magazine found 69 percent of working moms had asked for changes at work after having kids, and 74 percent of them got what they asked for. Moms in the survey say "flex time" and telecommuting are the benefits they value most. The survey also showed 75 percent of working moms feel their bosses are supportive of their family needs.

The gender gap will remain until more women pursue careers in science and engineering, women become tougher negotiators, and employers do more to accommodate the needs of mothers with young children, AAUW research director Catherine Hill recently told The LA Times.

In the end, though, the negative trends for workforce women in the science-focused workplace may be no different from those for men.

"Women are the canaries in the coal mine," The New York Times recently quoted Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Lenore Blum as having told an audience at Harvard University in March, in a talk on the "crisis" in computer science.

"Factors driving women away will eventually drive men away as well," she and others say.

We open the floor to you. Weigh in with your thoughts: a major problem or an overstated issue? Should other factors be considered?

Earlier

This Woman's Work: Short Shrift?

Upping the Estrogen in Engineering Talent Pool

Resources

How Women's Talents Will Affect The Workplace by Adrienne Selko, interview with Chin-Ning Chu (president of Asian Marketing Consultants) IndustryWeek, May 23, 2007

Need more engineers? Recruit women by Belle Wei The San Jose Mercury News, April 27, 2006

The Science & Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential National Science Foundation, August 2003

Behind the Pay Gap The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, April 2007

Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report Statistics Canada, March 2006

Hutchison: Rationalizing why women earn less fails to make it fair by Sue Hutchison The San Jose Mercury News, May 7, 2007

Employment Characteristics of Families in 2006 U.S. Dept. of Labor, May 9, 2007

What Moms Want – Survey Results Working Mother

Science jobs urged to ease pay disparity by Molly Selvin The Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2007

Computer Science Takes Steps to Bring Women to the Fold by Cornelia Dean The New York Times, April 17, 2007

Additional

Pay Gap Between Men and Women Remains a Reality in Work Force by Sarah E. Needleman CareerJournal (The Wall Street Journal), April 24, 2007

Women's Pay: Lagging From the Start by Julie Rawe TIME, April 23, 2007

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