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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To Counter "Sexism's Puzzling Stamina," the State Must "Lean In"

Today Frank Bruni wrote a spot-on editorial in the New York Times on the persistence of sexism. In it, he talks about how in a wide range of contexts, from cultural representation to sexual assault, sexism continues to plague women. His one comment about economic inequality is this: “I’ll leave aside boardrooms; they’ve been amply covered in Sheryl Sandberg’s book tour.” On this point he could not be more wrong.

Perhaps it’s because I teach contracts and corporations, but it seems to me that economic inequality between men and women is at the root of much of the other forms of inequality. If women earned the same as men, and had the same professional profile, would Hollywood ignore their interests? Would sexual violence against women continue with impunity if women were economically equal? It’s hard to see how economic differences would not be at the root of all of this inequality. Sandberg’s argument that women should “lean in” just does not cut it – it pretends that some focused but voluntary effort might actually shift economic equality.

As if women could collectively will equality into being. Sandberg's wishful thinking will fail because it ignores how our legal system establishes rules to stack men into high power jobs and women onto the mommy track. In the rare instances when women make it ot the top, they face harsher judgment for their failures than their male counterparts, as occurred with Carly Fiorina, a circumstance that fits neatly with the work of Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati on minorities. Given that women have had near parity among graduates of top professional schools for several decades, structural discrimination must be blocking them from entry into the upper echelon. Blacks and other minorities have equally weak numbers.

The corporate elite has defined standards of competence in ways that exclude women and minorities, a self-preservation move that may be explained using Daria Roithmayr’s recent work. Sandberg’s laudable efforts overlook the central role played by public policy and the need for efforts that target changing men’s behavior. Scandinavia provides two examples of public policy that would have an enormous effect in favoring women’s elevation in the corporate hierarchy.

First, parental leave in the US, like in Sweden, is sex neutral. The United States requires leave but does not mandate that it be paid, making heterosexual families more likely to have (often) lesser paid women stay at home, cutting off their career prospects. Men do not take leave in general. By contrast, Sweden incentivizes men to take leave – it accords more leave to families where each parent takes at least three months. Family leave in Sweden, like in almost every other country in the world other than the United States, is paid. Second, q quotas also play a role, as I’ll discuss on another day.  The point is that the state plays a role, whether passively to support sexist norms, or actively to counter them. If someone should lean in, it is the state. It should lean in to encourage egalitarian parental leave policies and to discourage work norms that function to disfavor those engaged in childrearing.

Posted by Darren Rosenblum on June 11, 2013 at 09:31 PM | Permalink


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Darren, it seems to be that there's a good argument that both the state should lean in, and so too, should women, a la Slaughter and Sandberg.

Culture matters too--I've been watching the West Wing via Netflix the last couple weeks and it's amazing to me to watch the gender dynamics on that show, at least the first 3 seasons, putatively of elite liberals for elite liberals. The women are treated like garbage or side-shows. Maybe Sorkin et al wanted to reflect rather than endorse the political culture--I can't say. But watching that dynamic unfold has been one of the most disturbing things I've noticed about this otherwise iconic and important tv show.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 12, 2013 12:12:33 AM


Aaron Sorkin can't write women. That has been a failing in every one of his shows (which really recycle the same female characters over and over again). There's the supposedly professionally brilliant one who is romantically incompetent (and actually not that professionally competent); the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold; the awkward-young-one who is uncomfortably fumbling her way through a new world; the sexually confident one (who is always in the background, never in the lead); the one who threw everything away for a loser guy and now is trying to get back on her feet; the one who gave it all up for a guy and regrets it; etc., etc.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 12, 2013 1:14:37 AM

"Given that women have had near parity among graduates of top professional schools for several decades, structural discrimination must be blocking them from entry into the upper echelon." That's one plausible theory. There are others. Asserting an unproven theory as obvious truth doesn't advance the ball very much.

Posted by: Douglas | Jun 12, 2013 2:39:55 AM

Douglas, there may be other theories but not many others that pass the test of adhering to the sacred premise: that these sorts of differences MUST be the result of women being done to rather than women doing. That premise is as old as the human race itself. It's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Posted by: NYAnon | Jun 12, 2013 10:23:09 AM

Funny that a post echoing a NYT columnist would immediately lead to a discussion of Aaron Sorkin fiction.

In the USA, once we account for hours worked and highest degree obtained, women earn something like 92-97 cents on the dollar, compared to men. Or am I wrong about that?

While Bruni's column was very well written, he was cherry-picking stats and events for comparison rather than offering a balanced view of the relative position of women in the USA over the last few decades.

Posted by: anon | Jun 12, 2013 11:58:23 AM

Who would pay for these parents to stop working so they can spend time with their children? Employers and therefore consumers? Taxpayers without children? The elderly? Perhaps you can tell us how your fairness impulse comports with the massive wealth transfer you are advocating.

Posted by: Senior Prof | Jun 12, 2013 3:05:59 PM

Thanks for these great comments. First, on the cultural point - you're right Dan that there is unquestionably a prevalence of demeaning depictions of women that needs to remedied on its own. As to the structural discrimination point, there are plenty of social psychology studies that demonstrate that women face a higher hurdle on employment matters, which suggests structural discrimination. I also think that in my experience none of the men with whom I worked would individually discrimination against women - if discrimination resulted it was something beyond their individual capacity to remedy. As to the wealth transfer point, two brief comments: 1) only four other countries in the world do not have paid parental leave, and there are a plethora of studies that demonstrate the high cost to society in not providing this benefit. 2) the cost would be outweighed by the evaporation of the opportunity cost we as a society pay by having extremely capable and educated women pushed out of the work force. If we actually added all the underemployed women to the workforce, wages for highly educated workers (partners, upper corporate management, etc.) would fall in response to an increased supply. I'm confident (and the success of Scandinavian economies demonstrates) that the benefit that would result would greatly outweigh any social cost.

Posted by: Darren | Jun 12, 2013 3:51:51 PM

Let me first see if I understand the problem correctly: The professional sacrifices that come from having children are disproportionately born by women. In additional to all the social norms at play, these decisions are influenced by the fact that women tend to earn less money than men, and thus it makes economic sense for the woman to give up her job to be the primary care giver.

One of the solutions being proposed is to make parental leave paid.

This doesn't seem like an effective solution. The woman still earns less and it thus still makes sense for her to give up her job. The only situation in which it would achieve the desired result is when mom's pay alone is not enough to support the family, but mom's pay plus dad's parental leave is enough, and the family is willing to forgo the even greater amount of dad's income + mom's parental leave. That's a very narrow portion of the population.

And it's a solution that could be worse than the problem. Women will still be more likely to leave their job to raise the kids (either because of persisting pay disparities or social norms), so paid parental leave essentially makes it more expensive to hire women or promote them to higher paying jobs. Thus the pay disparity between men and women would be increased, putting more pressure on women to be the ones to give up their jobs, and also hurting every single woman in the workforce who is now perceived as a greater financial risk.

Lastly, I think Darren has misrepresented the state's choices: "The point is that the state plays a role, whether passively to support sexist norms, or actively to counter them."

First, doing nothing is not the same as supporting the status quo. Hopefully the reasoning there doesn't need explanation. Second, the status quo is progress. The pay gap is shrinking, it's becoming more common to see stay at home dads, more companies are offering paid parental leave or extending the amount of leave offered, women are gaining more executive positions, and women are increasingly the breadwinner in their family. The passive option doesn't support sexist norms, it supports their gradual dismantling.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jun 12, 2013 4:17:57 PM

Darren, in light of the last paragraph of your argument (and your assertion that "Scandinavia provides two examples of public policy that would have an enormous effect in favoring women’s elevation in the corporate hierarchy"), I wonder what you make of arguments like this (from http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/miarticle.htm?id=7342):

In the literature on the pay gap and in the media more generally, this state of affairs typically leads to cries of injustice. The presumption is that women pursue reduced or flexible hours because men refuse to take equal responsibility for the children and because the United States does not have “family-friendly policies. . . .” But is this attitude accurate? Do women want to be working more, if only the kids “and their useless husbands” would let them? And do we know that more government support would enable them to do so and close the wage gap?

Actually, there is no evidence for either of these propositions. If women work fewer hours than men do, it appears to be because they want it that way. About two-thirds of the part-time workforce in the United States is female. According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, only 21 percent of working mothers with minor children want to be in the office full-time. Sixty percent say that they would prefer to work part-time, and 19 percent would like to give up their jobs altogether. For working fathers, the numbers are reversed: 72 percent want to work full-time and 12 percent part-time.

In fact, women choose fewer hours despite the resulting gap in earnings all over the world. . . . Sweden, in many people’s minds the world’s gender utopia, also has a de facto mommy track. Sweden has one of the highest proportions of working women in the world and a commitment to gender parity that’s close to a national religion. In addition to child care, the country offers paid parental leave that includes two months specifically reserved for fathers. Yet moms still take four times as much leave as dads do. (Women are also more likely to be in lower-paid public-sector jobs; according to sociologist Linda Haas, Sweden has “one of the most sex-segregated labor markets in the world.”) Far more women than men work part-time; almost half of all mothers are on the job 30 hours a week or less. The gender wage gap among full-time workers in Sweden is 15 percent. That’s lower than in the United States, at least according to the flawed data we have, but it’s hardly the feminist Promised Land.

The list goes on. In the Netherlands, over 70 percent of women work part-time and say that they want it that way. According to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, surveys found that only 4 percent of female part-timers wish that they had full-time jobs. . . .

Less time at work, whether in the form of part-time jobs or fewer full-time hours, is what many women want and what those who can afford it tend to choose. Feminists can object till the Singularity arrives that women are “socialized” to think that they have to be the primary parent. But after decades of feminism and Nordic engineering, the continuing female tropism toward shorter work hours suggests that that view is either false or irrelevant. Even the determined Swedes haven’t been able to get women to stick around the office.”

Posted by: NYAnon | Jun 12, 2013 5:03:29 PM

Darren - I want to completely support your point that the state has a role to play and until we achieve something like economic equality we will not have social equality. Laws mandating parental leave and for gender parity on corporate boards are good ideas; they will not be panaceas, but I doubt that you meant to suggest that they would be (contra NYAnon). However, I would offer one quibble. I don't think it is helpful to jump on the "bash the Sandberg "lean in" thesis" bandwagon. From the critiques one sometimes gets the impression that no one has read the book (as opposed to the book reviews). I feel like the book reviews (AMS's in the NY Times being an exception) were intended to gin up more on the phony "mommy wars" front rather than offer much real analysis. Sandberg doesn't say much of any of what press critiques seem to say she says. In her first chapter of "Lean In" Sandberg explicitly disclaims that her suggestions are intended as anything like the whole solution. She writes that while "internal barriers are critical to gaining power" (p8) they are only one part of a total solution which includes removing legal barriers for women in the first place. (9) She cites a lot of those statistics about inequality and says we are still only "squinting" at the promises of real equality that the early feminist activists hoped for and that we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for how far we've come when we still have so far to go and indeed are slipping backwards in some respects. She is not blaming the victim or letting institutions (private or public) off the hook (p. 10-11). And she is not at all ambiguous about the fact that women with ambitions to excel in the workplace who DO follow her advice and "lean in" may very well be punished for it, not rewarded with promotions. She is explicit in her cultural criticism as well. On p. 17 she notes that saying a woman is "very ambitious" is not generally a compliment in our culture and that "women who display these same traits [ambition, drive]often pay a social penalty." (p.17) "When a girl tries to lead, she is often labelled bossy." (p. 19). Moreover, she also acknowledges that not all women have the same ambitions and, in what I think is perhaps the most important point, that for many women work is not a "choice" (it certainly isn't for me!) so some of this "working mom versus stay-at-home mom" dynamic is a fiction that pits women against each other rather than recognizing that the vast majority of working women need to work to help support their families and don't have access to some of the services that make work look more "choice-like" at the top of the professional ladder (p. 22-23). (Although, note, why is it self-evident to so many people that if two people have a child, taking care of that child is only a problem for one of them?) At any rate, as a woman who has worked all of my life in several different work environments and very different jobs, Sandberg's advice resonated deeply with me. I don't see it as a substitute for a change in the laws or for consciousness-raising of the sort Dan engaged in. I think we need ALL of the above. But I think urging young women and girls who are just starting out to be more ambitious for themselves is a worthy objective. I find reductive arguments about women "naturally" wanting to work less to be unresponsive to basic observations about lower pay, etc. One cannot explain away all inequities of pay and position that women experience as a function of some women taking time off to raise a family or preferring less time devoted to their careers. I got my first job at a time when the classified ads were still segregated by "Men Wanted" and "Women Wanted" and experienced plenty of sexist commentary in the course of my working life, commentary that I initially was too young and inexperienced to realize was objectionable. I would have benefited from advice like Sandberg's when I was 20, so I think it is valuable even if it only maps out a partial solution.

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Jun 12, 2013 6:52:11 PM

NYAnon - Really? Only 19% of people want to give up their jobs altogether These people lack imagination. Who wouldn't want to give up their job (at least some of the time)?

Posted by: VAP | Jun 12, 2013 6:59:38 PM

Tamara, you pretty much said it all - I couldn't agree more. The only thing I'd add is that much of this discussion has focused on women and there are other sides to the issue - plenty of men (as well as people of all sexes) would be happy to work less and spend more time with their families and live in great balance of their work/home lives.

Posted by: Darren | Jun 12, 2013 8:41:44 PM

I don't see any reason that use of parental leave ought to be or ever would be gender-neutral. Parenthood is not gender-neutral in the first place. It's the woman who carries the baby for 9 months; the woman who goes through the painful and exhausting experience of childbirth; the woman who alone can breastfeed. It seems bizarre and frankly sexist as well to suggest that men need just as much time off as women (why sexist? because why are we pretending that the biological contribution to parenthood is the same for men and women?)

Posted by: WT | Jun 13, 2013 12:31:22 PM

I can see a world with open borders where all the breeders end up on kiddy leave in Sweden and the young, single and childfree gravitate to work in the USSA. This could happen on account of the divergent cost of a pint of beer alone.

Posted by: jimbino | Jun 14, 2013 11:57:24 AM

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