A recent set of articles about women in business show that as you move up through the corporate ranks, the number of women quickly drops. One article cites a McKinsey report which says that 53% of entry levels jobs are held by women, versus only 26% of senior management jobs. It goes on to suggest that women are leaving the standard corporate career path to be pursue entrepreneurial endeavors which empower them to meet their personal needs and their career needs. There is a pervasive sense in the article that women’s professional lives are defined by trade-offs, or compromises, between the personal and the professional.
One entrepreneur interviewee says: “I make just as many compromises, if not more, than I did when I was someone else’s employee. But these compromises are done on my own terms, not to line the pockets of my boss or some corporation. This time the trade-offs are for me.”
Another article suggests that women’s inclination to seek compromise between career and life is the problem; women are trying to “have it all,” and balance various kinds of experiences and goals, while men simply focus on their careers. The author cites the paucity of women at the World Economic Forum in Davos as an example of women shying away from the professional limelight (Here’s a piece that discusses the gender disparity at Davos in depth).
A piece on powerful women in emerging world markets suggests that in BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) women are also facing trade-offs, and are more likely to try to achieve a stable balance of the personal and the professional.
But many of these articles about professional women in business journals are slow to acknowledge sexism in the workplace and in wider culture. Why do women face “trade-offs” that men don’t face?
A New York Times Op-Ed describes how women are exposed to discrimination in the workplace because pregnancy is not protected in the same way as other extenuating circumstances. The job-market is tougher for women who have already had children as well, the article argues.
Another Op-Ed suggests that it’s not merely a legal problem that causes women to face trade-offs. This author suggests that it’s socially unacceptable for women not want to have babies. “If you want children, go for it,” she urges, “but do it because you want those children and because you want to be a mother, not because you’re afraid of the alternative.” The suggestion here is that women are in fact expected to make trade-offs that compromise their professional lives, and that if they don’t, they fear they will face judgment and even scorn from their communities. The trade-offs may not be between personal versus professional considerations, but between professional considerations and societal expectations of women.
But professional/personal trade-offs are not the only realm in which structural inequalities prevent women from accruing power. Turns out the world is full of systems that arbitrarily disadvantage women! This article explains that the new, “post-revolutionary” and supposedly progressive Egyptian Parliament is 98% male. On a darker note, and closer to home, a new documentary film chronicles the experiences of women in the military, twenty percent of whom will be raped by their peers.
There are, however, people working on these structural problems. Organizations like Vital Voices and The Third Billion are working internationally to address material and societal barriers to women’s empowerment. Recently, the Girl Scouts of America launched To Get Her There, a campaign devoted to helping young woman rise to leadership positions, especially in the male-dominated science and technology arena.
[Photo: Three women shipbuilders, 1942, via flickr]