Women at Work

10.17.134:45 AM ET

The New Soft War On Women: Stalling On The Career Ladder

In their latest book, 'The New Soft War on Women,' two academics noticed that while women have leveled out the playing field at the beginning of their careers, huge disparities exist as work life progresses.

At first glance, it may seem like a wonderful time to be a woman—a time of empowerment and achievement.

But look again, more closely, and you will see an ominous truth. Women’s gains in the workplace either have stalled out or are in grave danger of being rolled back. While more women than ever before are studying medicine, law and business in college and professional schools, there is a real question whether they will ever attain leadership positions in the areas in which they have been trained.

Women have made dramatic gains in higher education and employment. For the first time, women make up half the educated labor force and earn the majority of advanced degrees. But these dramatic gains have not translated into money and influence. Women are not getting to the top at anything like the rate one would have expected, given their education and early promise. The needle hasn’t moved. It may be counterintuitive to think that education and employment don’t yield the sort of money and power that they do for men. But that is indeed the case.

Despite the fact that the pipeline is getting filled with educated and talented women, their way forward is too often blocked. Under a veneer of success and progress, what we call the New Soft War on Women is growing in strength. As we will demonstrate, the war’s skirmishes are less visible and predictable than the old and obvious closed doors but are in many ways at least as effective.

New barriers and old biases—which we will discuss in detail—shackle women as they try to move ahead in the arenas of business, academia, the sciences and politics. Picture, if you will, two people, a man and a woman, starting out on a lifelong path of work. Both are equally qualified, both have the same sort of dreams, and both are willing to work as hard they can to achieve their goals.

But only one of these people, the man, is unencumbered. The other, the woman, carries a fifty-pound pack on her back. He strides freely and swiftly, looking neither to the right nor to the left. She travels much more slowly, struggling with a burden that she can’t seem to shed. She is carrying a history of gender discrimination that is as heavy as a pack filled with large rocks and that slows her down as she struggles to move ahead. Most of this weight has been thrust upon her by history and culture, but some of it she herself has picked up when succumbing to notions of what a woman should be. In her path are barriers that she may not even be aware of before stumbling into them. She has to muster a great deal of energy and resources to continue her journey, while the man, unimpeded, moves at a brisker pace. The farther along she goes on the path, the more formidable the barriers become, and the harder it gets for her.

Over the past forty years, much progress has been made at the beginning of the road, with women streaming into graduate and professional schools. More and more women are getting educated and saying they want lifelong careers. They start out at a sprint. But the farther they go, the greater the wear and tear of this heavy backpack. They have to expend ever more energy and struggle ever harder to keep up with the men who are moving inexorably ahead of them. In spite of the extra burdens they carry, women are making progress in reaching their goals. But it’s slow going, and the number of women thins out as the top of the ladder comes into view.

The number of women in leadership positions has been anemic for a long time, and remains so. In many arenas, women are actually slipping backward.

This may surprise you, because the media tell us that women are taking over the world and that men are failing. For now, this “threat story” is winning the day. It argues that women have come too far too fast, and because of their success, men are faltering.

Don’t believe it. In nearly all areas of work, the narrative on women’s great progress is highly misleading—especially when it comes to top-level jobs. Here’s the evidence:

* The gains in salary that women acquired over the 1980s and 1990s not only have leveled off, but also have, in fact, dropped off to the point where men’s salaries are pulling far ahead once again.

* Women’s remarkable strides in education during the past three decades have not resulted in full equity in pay—even for college-educated women who work full-time. In 2011, a typical college-educated woman twenty-five years or older working full-time earned $50,000 a year, compared with $70,000 for college-educated male workers in the same age group—a difference of $20,000 each year.

* The WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) Project, a national group that helps women close the gender gap in pay, illustrates this salary difference in a stark way. “Tina and Ted graduated from the same university, with the same degree.
They work the same number of hours, in the same type of job. And yet, as they start their first jobs, Ted is making $4,000 more than Tina. In the second year, the difference has added up to almost $9,500.”

* Over a lifetime of work, a woman with a bachelor’s degree will earn a third less (some $700,000) than a man with the same degree. This pattern holds in nearly all fields of endeavor.

* Female physicians earn, on average, 39 percent less than male physicians. Female financial analysts take in 35 percent less than male financial analysts, and female chief executives 25 percent less than male executives. Female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school. Women start behind and never catch up. This pattern holds true even among graduates from our most elite universities: Female Harvard graduates earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

* Male chief financial officers are paid an average of 16 percent more than their female counterparts of similar age at U. S. companies with comparable market values.

* Women have made few inroads into U. S. corporate boards or executive suites. In 2012, figures show glacial progress in increasing female representation, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research group studying women and business. Catalyst dubbed such progress “flat, static, immobile, inert,” and its CEO, Ilene H. Lang, said, “If this trend line represented a patient’s pulse— she’d be dead.”

* The number of women promoted to board seats in Fortune 500 companies, which had steadily increased in the late twentieth century, has dropped over the past three years. A major report by the international consulting firm McKinsey that was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal found that “despite the sincere efforts of major corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy. Overall, this picture has not improved for years.”

* Only 4 percent of health care organizations have women CEOs; among those that received more than $2 million in venture funding, zero had a female CEO.

* In computer science and engineering, women’s earlier gains appear to have slowed or even shifted into reverse. The share of women in tech fields is a meager 25 percent, and they make up a dismal 11 percent of tech executives. The percentage of women holding jobs in computer fields has declined from nearly 40 percent in 1991 to 25 percent today.

On The Battlefield

These staggering statistics tell the story of the New Soft War.

Why do we call it soft? Because research finds that today’s barriers are more subtle and insidious than the old ones. It’s less a frontal assault than an ongoing and very effective guerrilla movement. Now, bias operates under a welcoming facade; the bombs are under the surface, but they still explode. This isn’t an overt conspiracy to hold women
back. Instead, it’s a perfect storm of economic, political and social factors that combine to threaten women’s progress.

Today, nobody says, “No women need apply.” But people may say, “You’re just not as likable as he is.” Or, “You women have come far enough. Now we need to pay attention to the men.” Or, “You’ve done great work, but I’ve got more confidence in Joe’s potential. He’s going to be a star!”

If you’re a female in a top job and you slip up in a man’s world, you’re most likely out the door. If you’re working on a project with a man, he’ll probably get the credit you deserve. You and your male colleague may both have a mentor, but he’ll get a sponsor—an advocate who will go to bat for him in a way that a woman’s champion will not. You’ll get more scrutiny than he will. If you are a mother who is serious about your work, you will be looked on as not really committed to that work, and not very competent to boot. A man with a résumé just like yours, however, will get a bonus for parenthood; he will be seen as serious, dedicated and responsible. If you speak up at some length at work, even if you are in a senior position, you will be seen not only as
gabby but also as incompetent. A man who talks as much or more than you do will be seen as powerful and forceful.

Why do we use the term war? Because the statistics we’ve just cited about women’s lack of progress are casualty figures. What was startling to us as we looked at these data was how powerful and pervasive gender stereotypes really are. Like many women, we knew there were still problems, but we had assumed that many of these stereotypes were fading and that the future looked bright indeed. It was only when we saw these issues, not one at a time, but with a wide-angle lens, that we realized how deeply disturbing the panorama is. It’s not that there haven’t been gains by women—there have been many. It’s that the payback we expected simply hasn’t materialized. In many ways, women’s progress is stuck—and may even be shifting into reverse.

The small-arms fire keeps coming, but women don’t see who’s sniping at them, who’s slamming doors and where the next land mine is planted. They’re blindsided by all the rhetoric about how good they’ve got it. They may even believe it.


Excerpted from THE NEW SOFT WAR ON WOMEN: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Men, Women—and Our Economy by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D. with permission from Tarcher/Penguin.