March is Women's History Month, a time when we're encouraged to look back and acknowledge the important contributions women have made to society throughout history. Which is a fine activity and all, but it doesn't do much in terms of alleviating the burden that systematic discrimination has put on us over the years.
This recession is impacting women especially. There's a lot of conflicting information to dig through--the first reports claimed that men were losing jobs at higher rates than women, due to the high rates of job losses in construction and manufacturing, two fields that are largely male dominated. As job losses in those sectors continue some researchers have even speculated that women may eventually make up a greater percentage of the overall workforce. That sounds like positive thing until you take into account that even if more women remain employed they are still earning far less than men overall.
Consider for a moment that in California 68 percent of minimum wage workers are female, there are more female than male borrowers holding sub-prime mortgages, and women and children in developing countries are being hit harder by higher food prices and the slowdown in markets for exports. This recession is killing women. We're poised to make up a larger percentage of the workforce but only in lower paying occupations.
The path to true economic equality is radical change that starts with the way we view gender and how we raise our children. For years studies have shown that boys and girls are encouraged differently in elementary school. Boys are encouraged to be more aggressive in class, are called upon more often and are challenged by teachers in ways that girls are not. Boys are praised for speaking up; girls are praised for having nice penmanship and manners. This disparity in earning potential is something we start setting up our kids for from day one.
But I'm starting to see actual change happening. Let me tell you why a generation from now things are going to look completely different.
First, we have a President who actually understands there is a problem and is taking steps to fix it. One of the first things Obama did after he was sworn in on January 20th was sign the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act a bill that ensures employers are better held accountable in cases of discrimination. The bill was named for Lily Ledbetter, a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s plant in Alabama, who sued for pay discrimination near the end of her 19-year career there. By the time she retired, Ledbetter made $6,500 less than the lowest-paid male supervisor.
When the bill was introduced in 2007 McCain did not support it. And during the 2008 campaign, when he was questioned about it he said, "[Women] need the education and training, particularly since more and more women are heads of their households, as much or more than anybody else and it's hard for them to leave their families when they don't have somebody to take care of them."
His comments clearly indicated that he didn't at all understand what the bill was trying to address. The Fair Pay Act doesn't magically grant women higher incomes; it protects employees who have been paid less than their counterparts for doing equal work. His reaction to the bill shows us why problems like discrimination and pay inequity are so hard to address. Legislators might actually be well-intentioned and believe in equal rights but with no way to get to the source of the problem and create a plan to change things we're all simply spinning our wheels.
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This is something Obama seems to understand. Wednesday in honor of Women's History month Obama signed an executive order to create a White House Council on Women and Girls. This council is designed to root out some of the basic causes of discrimination, the special issues facing us and create systems and legislation that will help us move toward a more fair, balanced social structure and workforce.
So we have a president that cares about gender equality, that's one step in the right direction. But there's another change happening that might change the face of our workforce within the next few generations. Studies show that more girls are entering traditionally male-dominated fields than ever before. In about 20 years we're going to have more female engineers and architects that we've ever had.
Anecdotally, I noticed something yesterday that gave me hope for our future. My two best friends are visiting New York and I just spent the day with them and their two-year-old son. I'm not host to babies all that often and I didn't have a stash of toys for him to play with, but two year olds are resourceful and after a very thorough search of my apartment he scrounged up a vibrating back massager, a condom, some plastic clapping thing left over from New Year's Eve, and clutch purse to carrying these things around in. It wasn't until about four hours later when naptime was looming and he was clearly feeling a little cranky that the toys got boring.
To keep him happy I grabbed him and started tossing him around on the chaise lounge in my office. He squealed and clapped and asked to be tossed around again and again. The roughhousing prompted his dad to say, "He's all boy," which startled his mom who shot back, "That's not true! He likes lipstick and high heels too!"
The exchange had me rolling around laughing. And I doubt that it came from any type of radical awareness of gender roles on the part of my straight friends. It was more a case of each parent wanting to show the ways that their son was as much like mommy as he is like daddy. But it also got me excited. If we're coming to a point where we can stop policing the boundaries of gender roles and what we deem proper interests for our boys and girls we might eventually close that gap. We might actually start seeing more of our girl children interested in typically higher paying and currently male-dominated fields. And our boy children won't feel so much pressure to go into occupations simply because they pay the highest.