Project Wonderful

Monday, July 8, 2013

Beyond Leaning In: Seven Lessons from Women's Workforce Participation

The one good thing to come out of this latest wave of attacks on women's reproductive rights is a renewed call for more women in public leadership. Wendy Davis' heroic filibuster seems to have sparked another wave of questions as to why there aren't more women in key leadership positions defending our gender when our rights are being attacked. Even with recent electoral gains the 113th Congress is still only 18.3% percent female. There is a lot to be said about women's workforce and political participation- two phenomena that are inextricably linked. As you know, I spent two years studying why and how women participate in public life. I certainly could not cover it all in one article, nor do I intend to. However I have been promising to explore the subject for months and now that I'm no longer in school, I am finally able to share what I learned there. So without further ado, here are seven lessons from studying women's workforce participation that help illuminate why we still have so few women in public life.

1) It's not going to be 50% at the top until it's 50% at the bottom. Perhaps the biggest barrier to women's public achievement is that women still bear the disproportionate brunt of domestic responsibilities. Even when a women works as much and makes more than her husband (and yes we're talking two parent, hetero relationships here) she is still the default caregiver for children at home. Women are also far more likely to drop out of the workforce when a child comes along. As Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, women often start "leaning back" years before they have children or even choose careers before they are married based on the assumption that childcare and other domestic responsibilities will fall on their shoulders. Working women on average get less sleep than their husbands and take fewer opportunities for self-care. In contrast, couples who set a gender balanced approach to care giving make more money overall, have lower divorce rates and more active sex lives.

2) We need to stop blaming women. Popular discourse would have you believe that women just need to assert themselves. Mentorship and sponsorship programs, leadership seminars, even talks on salary negotiation aim at combating this issue. While these measures are important, they don't tell the whole story. Studies now show that even when equally qualified women ask for the same salary as their male counterparts they are more frequently denied. Male bosses pass over women for promotions because of the natural bias to promote someone who reminds them of themselves. Double blind surveys show that in the exact same business scenarios men are seen as leaders where women are accused of being bossy. While men are "ambitious" women are "out for themselves." We can do it exactly the same and not get the same result. Of course women need to take responsibility for our career paths and even more importantly institutional norms, but our current pattern of professional victim blaming is setting us up for failure.

3) When women run they win at the same rates as men but... Political participation advocates are quick to point out that when women run for office they win at the same rates as men. What they don't tell you is that the average female candidate is more qualified than her male counterparts. Female candidates have more higher education, more professional experience and are more active in the political community than men. Society sets a higher bar for what kind of woman runs in the first place. Social scientists wonder why women tend to do better in general elections as conservative candidates. One answer is that for a woman to become a nominee of a conservative party she must have already faced so much scrutiny that she is exceptionally qualified for the job.

4)Women ask, "why me?" when men ask, "why not me?" The extent to which the pressure to be perfectly qualified for the job is imposed by society as opposed to self-imposed is one for the sages. My guess would be a lot of column a, but also some column b. Studies show that women underestimate their own abilities while men overestimate theirs. The first question a woman asks when offered a potential job opportunity is, "Are you sure I'm qualified?" The first question man asks is, "How much money does it make?" By the same token men are likely to apply for a job they want even if they meet just a few of the qualifications listed, while women are likely to apply only if they meet most or all of the qualifications. Whether applying for jobs or running for office, the implication for recruiting female candidates is huge!

5) "We can be anything" does not mean "We can be everything." Our mothers' generation broke barriers to ensure that that we could could grow up to be anything we wanted. The problem is that women are now expected and expect themselves to be perfect mothers, leaders, workers, partners, lovers, volunteers, and friends all at once. Our society was built around gender specialization, men worked and spent little time with their families and women raised families, kept house and spent little time in the workforce. The new work/life balance involves making trade-offs for both men and women. In an ideal future this will mean fathers splitting parental leave with mothers, it will mean some parents working part-time or taking a less demanding job in order to spend time caring for their families. It will also include families with a "traditional" male breadwinner model and that's okay too. Choices are meant to liberate, not constrain us. This does mean that women who run for office need to be excellent time managers. For this reason, women who run for office often do so before they've had children or after their children are grown.

6) You can't paint with the color grue. Telling a woman she can run for office is like telling someone in 1970 that they can be a software designer; there's no pathway, too few role models, no clear picture of what that would look like. Men grow up imagining themselves as leaders, women grow up being told they can be leaders, but not shown. Imagine me asking you for a picture in the color "grue." I can describe it but if you've never seen it, you won't know how to make it happen, and painting grue would have never occurred to you. For this reason women need to be ASKED to run for office and supported at much higher rates than men. Many women who would make excellent candidates simply haven't thought of it on their own or need to be shown a pathway for how it is feasible in their own lives. This is one of the reasons that I prefer to support women candidates in Democratic primaries. In order for more women to run for office, more women need to run for office.

7) Men have it hard too. I'll admit I've had a difficult time acknowledging that gender bias disadvantages men as well. In the past I have discarded these claims with likes of "why don't we have straight pride parades?" Still, a society that tends to equate masculinity with wealth and power and define men by their jobs sends a pretty clear message about what men's priorities should be. If we want men to take paternity leave and take more responsibility at home in general, we need to make that okay, both through public policy and a redefinition of masculinity.

This is just the tip of the iceberg! I can't wait to share more with you and hear what you have to say!

Campaign Love and Mine,



  1. Thanks for this. Re: getting women to run and grue, are you familiar with Emerge? We recruit and train Democratic women to run for office. There are currently programs in 13 states, including my homestate of Maine. I'm an Emerge Maine alumna, and I'm on the board of both Emerge Maine and Emerge America.

    In short, we're awesome! Check us out.

  2. I do know about Emerge because a GREAT former coworker of mine is on the board/just did a training for them in Colorado. Huge fan! Keep up the good work!