Getting the Short End of the Stick —Why #Me Too Might Not Be the Best Answer

I met them all. Some were vicious and crooked. But…
you saw Hollywood with their eyes—an overcrowded
brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.” Marilyn Monroe

“One-in-four women [25%] said they have earned less than a man who was
doing the same job; just 5% of men said they have earned less than
a woman doing the same job.”  —Pew Research Center

Women on the outside looking in —economically, politically, socially, sexually. Nothing new.  Our 19th century foremothers experienced much the same from a society that held their value to be less than that of men. Accordingly, theirs was a narrowly-defined place in the social order (AKA the cult of true womanhood) at home and hearth, rearing the children, and occasionally doing their civic duty in clubs and organizations working for the betterment of society and the “education” of working class women (exempt by their class from the strictures of high-class ladies, they spent their days in sweat shops and factories along with their children). Men had the world to run. Some things have changed since (although men still rule the world). Today’s woman is out and about, bringing home a paycheck —mandatory in a U.S. economy heavily weighted toward elites. Close to two-thirds (62%) of U.S. households are two-income families, up from one-quarter in 1960.  As women exited the private sphere of home and family and ventured into the public sphere, unpleasant reminders of their “weaker sex” stereotype kept popping up.

The twentieth century heralded America’s appearance as a highly sexualized society. In short order, women became targets and victims of unwanted, sometimes brutal male attention. The number of men who descended to full-blown predators remained small but their reach was global. The response was a long time coming, but when it did, #MeToo and Times Up, exposed the skeletons in the closet of a whole raft of men, many well-known with lucrative careers in television, movies, politics and business. Not that their deviations were ever a secret. Too many women had experienced the demeaning effects of unwanted sexual attention or garden-variety gender bias but blowing the whistle always seemed a bridge too far —bad for business (male myth) and worse for the women who protested (realistic concern).

While sexual exploitation of young women might have picked up steam in the 21st century thuggish male behavior, especially in show business, has been around for a long time. Here’s Carrie Rickey, film critic and historian, setting the record straight — “The perils for women in Hollywood are embedded, like land mines… where moguls like Harry Cohn [founder and president of Columbia Pictures active in the 1930s and 40s] reputedly wouldn’t cast starlets like Marilyn Monroe…unless they auditioned in bed.” Come to think of it, Harvey Weinstein might have set off on his predatory path under the tutelage of a past master. Old-time Hollywood was awash in misogynists. Alfred Hitchcock might have invented the casting couch according to one of his “blonde goddesses.” Not until decades later did Tippi Hedren (star of The Birds and Marnie) feel safe enough (career-wise) to disclose that on a Hitchcock set sexual molestation was part of the job.

Is sexual exploitation the only gender bias today’s woman faces? Not at all. Economic exploitation, hitting most women in their wallets, is one of the biggest issues dogging the future prospects of women —affecting those on the shop floor running the same machines as men, doing the same jobs, charged with the same responsibilities to women office workers, women in professional positions, women executives and those aspiring to climb the corporate ladder into the C-suite (where corporate officers and directors hang out).

As a general rule and taken for granted by the majority of us, hourly wage workers feel the economic sting of gender bias at its most basic level — in their paychecks. In 2017, full and part-time women earned 82% of what men earned (Pew Research Center). To make up for this disparity women would have to work an extra 47 days. Forty years ago, women’s pay checks were one-third lighter than that of their male counterparts.

One might expect income inequality and other types of work place exploitation to become non-starters as women move into higher-paying jobs or executive positions. Not at all. One women is taking the bull by the horns — suing her employer, a hedge fund. A word about hedge funds, stellar examples of men behaving badly. Unlike traditional Wall Street firms where the #Me Too movement has prompted some cosmetic overhauls and women occasionally find themselves in positions of authority, the $3-trillion-dollar hedge fund industry has clung to its traditional biases against women. The lawsuit alleges “a testosterone-fueled boys’ club in which men commented on women’s bodies, belittled their abilities, and paid them less than their male peers.” (New York Times, 2/13/2018). Notice how sexual discrimination and economic exploitation are inextricably linked as two faces of the same coin. In an $11 billion company with 1,000 employees, women were called “girls” and high-level women executives were often excluded from meetings deemed “suitable” for men only. To buttress allegations of gender discrimination, the lawsuit points to several key indicators — the paltry number of women managing directors (3%) and the lack of women in revenue-generating areas —1 woman and 124 men designated portfolio managers (top traders whose bonuses are often in the multi-millions).

What happens in the rarefied world of corporate executive suites may not seem germane to the everyday concerns of the rest of us, but as bad behavior invariably trickles down, how the top women earners are treated is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to wage discrimination and other kinds of inequality visited on women workers lower in the corporate hierarchy. Women CEOs who, by dint of hard work (surpassing men’s), incomprehensible expenditures of effort, and maybe a tad of blind luck have managed to make it to the top rung of the corporate ladder, are falling off their perches in record numbers. Already in 2018, the number of women CEOs has declined a whopping 25%.  A minuscule number of CEOs to begin with, this latest drop leaves 24 women (down from 32) at the helm.

The thinning of the ranks among women CEOs is symptomatic of a larger problem women face in corporate America.  On entry, women and men generally have identical access to jobs and pay. But as they ascend the corporate ladder, fewer and fewer women survive. On their way up, women are 18% less likely to be promoted to managerial positions than their male peers. The real fall-out occurs the closer a woman gets to the top job. Only 22% of senior vice-presidents are women. Of those, a mere 21% work in jobs related to generating revenue— the surest path to the C-suite. Add to those disadvantages, the phenomenon known as the “glass cliff” in which women who are promoted to the top job are much more likely to be saddled with a failing corporation, even one on the brink of bankruptcy.

What happened to Denise Morrison, CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, is replicated in executive suites inhabited by women time and time again. The day after being named one “of the top three most reputable CEOs worldwide,” she suddenly found herself out of a job or in HR-speak, “[she] has chosen to retire.”  With Campbell sustaining a $245 million loss in the first quarter, the board wasn’t about to give her a mulligan as they might have a male CEO. Instead CEO Morrison was given a choice —retire or be booted out. Contrast that with the treatment of CEO Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase.  One of his trading units (London Whale) racked up over $7 billion in losses and $1 billion in penalties. Was he to blame? You betcha. According to an SEC investigatory report: “JPMorgan’s senior management broke a cardinal rule of corporate governance and deprived its board of critical information.” Was he tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail? A headline at CNN Money describes his unsurprising fate— “JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon got a 74% pay hike for last year, even though the bank was forced to pay billions in fines and settlements last year.”

As might be expected, hard as it is to reach the executive suite at most U.S. corporations, reaching the boardroom rachets up the pressure. Women now hold 10% (643) of the seats on the boards of Fortune-500 companies. A long way from gender parity, but, as some see it, slow and steady improvement. On the debit side of the ledger, twelve corporations have zero women on their boards. They stand out in another way —among the twelve, only three women have made it into the executive suite.

Now for the big reveal.  Gender diversity in the boardroom doesn’t always have a beneficial effect on the pay gap between CEOs and other employees. In one study, conducted by Equilar, a compensation research firm, at the top 100 U.S. corporations, those with the greatest gender diversity (more women on their board) paid their chief executive (usually a man) 15% more than the compensation dispensed by companies with less diverse boards. If you think that’s bad, read on. At Tenet Healthcare, one of the companies with a better than average record of gender diversity (one-third of its board members are women), employee wage theft was rampant ($281 million in penalties) most of it targeting their heavily female workforce.

Perhaps the problem is structural built into the requirements for making it in corporate America. An expert on corporate governance points to the pressures on women once they reach the big time: It is very difficult for women to get on boards… [Once they do] they are under even more pressure to go along to get along.”  Ask any CEO the main qualities “he” looks for in potential board members and the answer will undoubtedly go something like this —We’re looking for a consensus builder —boat rockers (read women) need not apply.

Women’s economic woes span the spectrum of unequal compensations, limited advancement potential, minimal presence in positions of authority —chalk it up to a heavily entrenched organizational culture which downgrades women’s leadership abilities although study after study has confirmed that gender is not a difference-maker when it comes to successful leadership. Unconscious biases are also at work here. In one experiment, respondents were asked to assess the leadership qualities of two candidates — “Eric” who offered new ideas was considered a “natural leader,” “Erica,” on the other hand, offering the same ideas was not.

Ultimately cultural attitudes that stereotype gender identity doom women to sexual depredation in the workplace and economic inequality in the workforce. Few could argue with the proposition that women need to feel safe from sexual battery in their workplace, but naming and shaming may not be enough. Like it or not, economic success is the great equalizer in a free-market capitalist society. If we accept this reality, we must face an unpleasant truth. The prospect of a more equal distribution of economic goodies has dimmed considerably with a hard-right president, an impotent congress, and a conservative, back-pedaling majority on the Supreme Court. In the richest country in the world, exceptional America, there are 23 million women living below the poverty line. Economic equality is beginning to look like the impossible dream.

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