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In the Fight for Gender Equity in the Labor Market, There is No "Other"

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As the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) comes to a close at the United Nations, member states, UN organizations, and NGOs have spent the last two weeks assessing the issues and challenges women face all over the world.

Economic development and access to fair and decent work has been an overarching theme at this year's CSW. While the focus often falls on the struggles of women in the developing world, it's easy to forget about the gender equality challenges that remain here in the United States. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama compared the current American labor market to an episode of Mad Men. Though the remark may be viewed as sardonic, what we may not realize is that a Mad Men reference was rather complimentary in light of America's truly precarious gender equality situation.

It is easy, and far more comfortable, to assume that gender inequality is something with which "other" countries must grapple. Yet, comparing the reality of what it's like to be a working woman in the United States with the situations of women in places as far away, and fabled, as Fiji and Papua New Guinea illustrates how women everywhere face obstacles to true economic freedom and equality. In reality, an American female in the workforce may have just as much in common with a Fijian garment worker as she does with Don Draper's secretary.

For example, like Papua New Guinea, the U.S. does not grant workers a right to a paid maternity leave. In Papua New Guinea, public-sector workers are entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave, six of which are paid. Private-sector workers also have a right to 12 weeks of leave, but it is unpaid. When the 12 weeks have expired, so has a woman's job protection.

In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) nominally affords public and private sector working mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But the Act doesn't cover all working mothers: the employee must have worked for the employer for a sufficiently lengthy and regular time, and private-sector employers must have at least 50 employees. While the FMLA was a victory for women at the time, it simply didn't go far enough.

It isn't always the laws that are the problem but the fact that they are subverted by more subtle discrimination. For example, Samoan women frequently have difficulties accessing credit or loans to purchase property or finance businesses. Deeply embedded stereotypes about "traditional" gender roles from those within lending institutions lead to assumptions about whether women can understand finances.

These trust issues are also looming in America. A recent study found that merely changing the gender connotation of the name of the "CEO" on otherwise identical resumes led potential investors to make drastically different decisions. Due to latent biases, investors were significantly more likely to favor firms run by males. However, though women more frequently must use their own personal funds for start-up costs, American women have been creating new businesses at a greater rate than men.

Moreover, when female entrepreneurs do create new firms, their leadership skills create results. Recent scholarship from Harvard University found that females scored higher than males on 12 of the 16 competencies required for effective leadership.

Nevertheless, latent biases still inhibit female entrepreneurs' opportunities to raise capital. And women's financial problems don't stop with periodic attempts to access credit; women also face an intimidating and debilitating "wage gap" with respect to their salaries -- the stream of money meant to help them maintain a dignified livelihood.

Advocates of the Equal Pay Day campaign at the CSW announced that, on average, women around the world earn 22 percent less than their male counterparts. Recent data suggests that some countries have a pay gap that is slowly withering away. Tuvuluan women make approximately 91 cents to the man's dollar.

On the other hand, while the pay gap in America is shrinking, American women still make only about 77 cents to the man's dollar. That is, if you're White. If you are African American, the number drops to 64 cents. If you're a Latina? 55 cents.

These numbers are unconscionable. And they have dire implications. Leaving aside micro-level issues arising from women being economically dependent on men, wage gaps threaten large-scale economic stability. When such a significant portion of the population lays dormant, national economic growth is stunted. Unleashing this productive potential would work to combat poverty on global scale.

In honor of the CSW, we need to look in the mirror. And then we need to have serious conversations about it, no primetime dramas needed.