Opinion | Columns

Playing softball with gender equality

“In what new ways do you plan to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”

Not a single woman I have spoken to at Columbia has openly cited gender as a reason for her choice of career, as a barometer of how much she expects to be paid, or to explain having been denied a job or internship. For this reason, I was surprised watching the town hall-style second presidential debate when a young woman asked the candidates about gender inequality. Her question surprised me by awakening a concern I had nearly forgotten. The Columbia societies for women’s this and that had, paradoxically, and by no fault of their own, allowed me to file the issue of women’s workplace equality in the back of my mind. There it stewed, with the rest of the well-intentioned enterprises that advertise in the stalls of ladies’ bathrooms in Butler.

My surprise faded when I realized that the question, and both candidates’ answers, were as banal and un-radical as a poster in the bathroom: at best, an outdated gesture at inclusivity; at worst, an arbitrary pretext for the candidates to prove they are sensitive, reasonable guys who can vaguely agree on something. Who, after all, is willing to say that women and men should not be compensated equally for doing the same job? President Obama and Governor Romney both promised to fix the problem—Obama through education and refusing to “tolerate discrimination,” and Romney by personally hiring women from his now-infamous “binders” and by growing the economy. Of course, prejudice against women has flourished in the best of economies, and Obama’s answer about discrimination and education is an incomplete explanation for the income gap. In other words, each candidate used the question to hyperlink back to his platform, leaving the underlying causes of gender inequality unmentioned.

However, in the defense of Romney and Obama, it would have been hard to address gender equality in response to a question essentially about numbers. The young woman in the audience introduced her question as one about how to “rectify inequality in the workplace,” but lost no time moving on to the real question: How will you make the numbers add up for me? This is not a bad approach in itself, but its effect is to narrow the conversation about gender equality so that success and failure can only be expressed in percentages. What follows is a false logic: When women earn 100 percent as much as men, inequality will have come to an end. If a statistical question is allowed to replace a cultural question, a statistical solution could potentially replace a cultural solution without addressing any of the cultural reasons why women are paid less for doing the same job.

In her TED talk, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg provides truly surprising statistics about workplace equality, but also explains what she believes to be the cultural factors behind the problem. Of the 190 heads of state worldwide, she says, only nine are women. Women make up only 13 percent of parliaments. Women hold only 15 percent of board-level positions, and, since 2002, there has been no increase, only a slight decline. For big companies to hire women methodically “from binders,” or crunch the numbers for more “flexibility” in order to join Bain & Co., MetLife, and Merck on the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list, might be considered a good start. However, it fails to address the question about culture. The “fix” Sandberg suggests is personal and behavioral, and by extension, social. She explains that “women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world” partly because they “systematically underestimate their own abilities.”

Instead of negotiating their salaries, according to Sandberg, women tend to accept what they are offered. Instead of insisting on “sitting at the table” and making their voices heard, they demur at speaking out of turn. (Interestingly, a friend’s boss in the financial industry told her this is why he prefers hiring women for administrative work: They are “detail-oriented and careful” and not loud or self-willed—in other words, because women are obedient.) But it would be a mistake to say that Sandberg blames gender inequality in the workplace on the failure of women to present themselves well. Rather, she objects to a culture that, consciously or unconsciously, sets counterproductive standards for female behavior. She refers to a study at Harvard where male and female students are given a story to read about a female CEO who “networked” her way to the top of a company—only in one version, the CEO was named Heidi, and in the other, it had been changed to Howard. The students described Howard as praiseworthy and likeable, but Heidi they found to be calculating and hungry. Unfortunately, Sandberg explains, “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

Though the study Sandberg mentions was able to use statistics as a kind of cultural gauge, the degree to which standards of “likeable” female behavior reflect onto community that reflects back onto the individual woman is hard to quantify. It is no help that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have become purveyors of cultish, total motherhood—brilliantly satirized by Jenny Allen in her New Yorker piece “I’m a Mom.” What should be most surprising about the lackluster question in the town hall debate, and about the candidates’ lackluster responses, is not that men and women are still treated unequally in the workplace. Really, it is surprising that public figures can get away with using gender equality as a cover for self-promotion, and with using statistics to avoid answering a question that is, whether or not we agree with Sandberg, essentially about culture.

At Columbia, our professors and programs such as those hosted by the Center for Career Education train us to be conscious of the way we present ourselves, and to be conscious of the way we participate in the culture Sandberg describes. On the first day of her wonderful Barnard literature course, I remember, Mary Gordon brought the class to an abrupt halt when a student introduced herself as Sarah. “Everyone is named Sarah!” she cried. Professor Gordon objected to what she considered the distinctly female habit of introducing oneself by first name only, even in a formal setting. The criticism seemed harsh at the time—the last-name-less Sarah was shrinking in her seat—but contextualized in politics’ empty answers about gender equality and Sheryl Sandberg’s (often unlikable) excoriating critique of female behavior in the workplace, I, for one, am grateful for reminders like Gordon’s.

Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. Senior Citizen, Junior Employee runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com


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Anonymous posted on

Great writing, as usual. But I take issue with Sandberg's critique--and to an extent, with Gordon's comment. Why blame the entire system when you can blame women for being shrinking violets? And while it may be true that women tend to introduce themselves by their first names, is it really fair to humiliate a woman for speaking up in class? After all, it seems highly unlikely a professor would make a point of humiliating a male student for evincing a characteristically "male" mannerism like being overly aggressive (the guy might get called out, but not in terms of his gender). Yes, Sandberg and Gordon are both women, but that doesn't make them immune from the influences of our culture. Their critiques ultimately seem to place the responsibility for solving pervasive and structural gender discrimination on women. And if it were simply as easy as women "toughening up" a bit, as it were, would gender equality really even be an issue? I think not.


AG posted on

Hi RPS, I rarely respond to comments on these columns, but I think yours is definitely worthy of consideration. I found it important to point out that Sandberg (whose critique is certainly limited to her own experience and position in the world) does not blame female behaviors so much as the way they are socially reinforced. Women, like everyone else, are not immune from acting into how they are best received. How they are best received is not as shrinking violets, but rather, as compliant and conciliatory instead of self-promoting and opportunistic. Who is to say which set of qualities is best--and both, certainly, are problematic examples of gender essentialism--but I do think that part of the solution (if you think gender-balanced parliaments, company boards, and heads of state is what needs to be solved) is to promote a culture where qualities in men and women are not perceived differently. This is not just women "toughening up a bit." It is men and women responding to Heidi and Howard in the same way. The problem with this goal (and really, the problem with my column) is: How on earth do you change a culture? Mary Gordon isn't changing a whole culture by castigating Sarah, but she, even in this small example, is, at least on one end, contributing. An embarrassing moment in the classroom is small potatoes compared to the hundreds of women who benefited from witnessing it and will carry that lesson into their post-graduate lives. Sarah may have cringed, but I think she was ultimately one of the students who participated most, which is to say, the classroom is a training ground where it is clear (at least in this case) that even as they challenge us, professors are genuinely trying to help. How far does that go to change a culture? Not far. And only on one side. How far does my column go? Not far. But Rome wasn't built in a day...