Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Wage Gap and the Presidential Campaign

The article at the link below describes the continuing wage gap between men and women. 

On average, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.  As the article explains, this gap persists despite the rise in women as a segment of the American work force, and women’s “dominance in both the undergraduate and graduate degree arena.”  According to the article, if we keep the current pace of narrowing the wage gap, it will be closed by 2056.  That is not an encouraging pace.  2056 is around the time my young daughters are likely to retire.

The election is mercifully over, but during the campaign President Obama tried to appeal to women on the wage gap issue.  He often touted his support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.  He also frequently noted that the continuing wage gap was not merely a women’s issue, but was a family issue since many families are now supported in whole or in large part by female breadwinners. 

I appreciate the president’s support of that legislation and he made a good point about the impact of the wage gap on families.  However, I was dismayed because when he spoke of these issues on the campaign trail, President Obama frankly seemed to think this was breaking news.  He also seemed to not be terribly savvy about structural issues leading to the wage gap.  Perhaps I am wrong, but this is the impression I got when I listened to the president speak.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the congressional reaction to an egregious Supreme Court opinion in 2007 that prevented a woman named Lilly Ledbetter from seeking redress from her employer after decades of covert sexist pay discrimination.  The legislation simply made a change to the statute of limitations that had barred Ms. Ledbetter’s case.  Form had triumphed over substance in Ms. Ledbetter’s case, so Congress made a small tweak to correct one procedural hurdle that had doomed her case.  The 180 day statute of limitations for an equal-pay lawsuit is now reset with each new paycheck impacted by the gender based discrimination.  The result is that there is a longer timeframe to bring suit. 

Certainly, I agree with this legislation, but it is no panacea to workplace gender discrimination or the persistent wage gap.  It is a mere band-aid on a much deeper wound.  Women still face all kinds of hurdles in even discovering such pay discrimination or bringing suit.  Indeed, what a world that such lawsuits are even necessary to right discriminatory practices.  I appreciate President Obama’s support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, but that is not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wage gap issues.

I was particularly disappointed with my perception of President Obama’s attitude on this issue due to his own life experiences.  He of all people should be more sensitive and knowledgeable about the wage gap and issues impacting women in the work place.  As a child, Mr. Obama was raised and supported financially primarily by two women who balanced paid work and raising children:  his mother and his grandmother.  As an adult, by his own account in his memoir The Audacity of Hope, his brilliant wife was the primary breadwinner for most of their marriage to-date.  Michelle Obama supported the family as an incredibly successful lawyer and corporate executive.  Moreover, again according to Mr. Obama’s own memoir, Mrs. Obama brought home the proverbial bacon while she was also shouldering most of the caregiving responsibilities for their young children.  As Mr. Obama admits in Audacity of Hope,  when his daughters were young, he participated in parenting only when it suited his schedule as he dabbled in politics and worked a bit as an adjunct professor.  Not until he became a national political star--and his book sales rose--did Mr. Obama significantly contribute to his family’s finances. 

Of all people, our current president should be more evolved on the wage gap issue.  Throughout his life, he has been supported financially by women who were juggling family responsibilities and paid employment.  Further, both his children are female.  This issue is one that his own daughters are likely to face as adults.

By contrast, I was actually pleasantly surprised by Governor Romney’s approach to this same issue. 

During the campaign, there was a lot of hoopla over his “binders full of women” comment.  Frankly, I thought that was silly and a colossal waste of time.  Perhaps “binders full of women” was an odd word choice.  But that happens when human beings speak spontaneously and don’t have prepared statements to follow.  We Americans whine that politicians rarely speak candidly or stray from tightly scripted stump speeches.  But the circus over Governor Romney’s “binders” comment is what happens when politicians speak in an unscripted fashion.  They get ridiculed if their wording is not perfect or even a bit goofy.  People get caught up myopically focusing on wording and ignore substance.  And we wonder why politicians don’t focus on substance in their campaigns.

Beyond the odd word choice, some also panned Governor Romney that he needed “binders” to be prepared for him and did not have a ready supply of female candidates in his social or professional circles.  Again, that is ridiculous.  There is a noticeable dearth of women in leadership positions that might be a logical stepping stone for serving in a governor’s administration.  I myself am a professional woman, and I know a lot of talented professional women.  But if I were on my own governor’s staff and looking to add women to the administration, I certainly wouldn’t have a ready list of candidates I could just whip out.  It is nuts to expect Governor Romney to have had such a list in his back pocket. 

Bravo that Governor Romney did something to increase the number of women in his administration and to get a broader cross-section of perspectives amongst his advisors.  Binders of resumes seem to me to be a rational way to go about such a hiring decision.  I’ve participated in hiring decisions at different organizations.  Putting resumes and other application materials in binders, folders or the electronic equivalent is an acceptable, routine approach. 

Beyond the asinine focus on the “binders of women” comment, I did not hear many others pick up on the substance of Governor Romney’s answer to that one town hall participant’s question.  He acknowledged the need for women to have flexibility to meet demands of both their paid work and their family responsibilities.  I thought this demonstrated a lot of sensitivity and savvy on Governor Romney’s part.  Yet, that part of his answer got ignored by most. 

Those in the media who did pay attention to it often panned it.  The article below from is typical.  

Only at the very end of the article does it reference Governor Romney’s attention to workplace flexibility.  In that context, the article states “And though Romney sought to highlight his support of flexible work schedules for women, his reference to women who need such schedules to race home to make dinner for their families may have ruffled some female voters the wrong way.”  The article then quotes Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, who comments, “His discussion of work-life balance appeared condescending to some because of the reference to women cooking dinner.”  That was the sum total of the attention paid in this article to the substance of Governor Romney’s comment.

Personally, I thought that sort of reaction by Professor Gillespie was overly sensitive and prideful.  It was also out of touch with reality.  Families need to eat.  That is just a reality, no sense denying it.  Eating out on a frequent basis or relying on take-on meals is a waste of money and typically not good for one’s health.  So, someone in the family has to cook.  And there is a ton of empirical evidence that even today women disproportionately shoulder the burden of most caregiving responsibilities—including meal planning and food preparation.  To deny that reality because it hurts our egos is not productive. 

Over the years, my husband and I have traded cooking responsibilities in our family.  I know some families where the husband does most of the cooking.  But anecdotally, such approaches seem to be rather unusual.  I’ve had numerous fellow working moms respond with stunned awe when they hear my husband cooks and feeds our children on a regular basis.  Apparently this is not their reality. 

Perhaps I am wrong, but I suspect that most of the women who panned Governor Romney’s comment about cooking dinner are not parents.  A dear friend of mine and I had a spirited disagreement over the governor’s comment.  Like Professor Gillespie, my friend thought it was patronizing and it really annoyed her.  My response to my friend was, “Welcome to my world!”  This friend of mine is married, but she and her husband do not have children. 

Children do not raise themselves.  There is a lot of on-going work that has to get done to take care of them.  It takes considerable time, effort and financial resources.  In my experience, people who are not parents do not always seem to realize this.  I often hear comments in casual conversation and in the media that suggest that childrearing is some sort of cute little hobby.  It is not.  It is a serious, long-term responsibility.  Unfortunately, I discern that in the media we frequently do not hear enough from people who actually bear such responsibilities.  They are probably too busy cooking dinner, checking homework and making sure people are bathed and in bed at a decent hour.

This point gets back to the workplace inhospitableness towards caregivers.  Such caregivers (who are disproportionately women) leave the professional world altogether or remain but are relegated to a disrespected “mommy track” because of the difficulty in juggling paid work and family responsibilities.  But it is a vicious cycle.  Because they leave or are relegated to a lower caste at work, the perspective of such people are rarely heard in the media or behind closed doors when employment policies are decided.  Until their perspective is heard, I am pessimistic things will improve.



1 Corinthians 12:14-17
Certainly the body isn’t one part but many.  If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?  If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?  If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell?

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