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Another 55-Year-Old White Woman for Obama

06/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Second chances are rare and wonderful moments. Baby Boomer white women now have one: we can cast a vote backwards in time, declaring that gender wins the 'who's-more-oppressed' game, or we can recognize that we missed an opportunity to fundamentally change institutions 30 years ago and our experience has made us wiser.

After each loss, Hillary Clinton or her supporters raise the specter of sexism in a divisive way; this stands in sharp contrast to Barack Obama's unifying discussion of race. Declaring gender as the "highest glass ceiling" has neither facts nor a hunger for uniting the country on her side.

In 1976, when I co-founded the first organization in the United States to offer comprehensive services, training, and consultation on the topic of sexual harassment, unwelcome sexual advances were disproportionately directed towards women of color; however, white women's complaints were consistently taken more seriously. Stereotypes and privilege were at work then, and they continue to play a critical role in our society today -- especially in the workplace.

In 2007, the Level Playing Field Institute conducted a rigorous study of 19,000 professionals and managers to determine who leaves corporate America and why. When the data were broken down, race, not gender, became the defining demographic. People of color are more than three times as likely to leave solely due to unfairness (9.5%) than Caucasian heterosexual men (3.0%). In comparison, Caucasian women are only one-and-a-half times more likely to leave (4.6%). The cumulative effect of stereotyping, mistaken identity, being asked to attend extra recruiting events and community functions to be the "minority face" of one's company is further indication that race plays a crucial role in one's experience.

When study participants were asked what could have kept them at their former employer, again, responses were divided along racial lines. For people of color, the single most important step employers could have taken was "a better manager who recognized my abilities." For Caucasian heterosexual men and women, the single most important step employers could have taken was related to the issue of "fair pay."

While there is a dearth of white women professionals and executives, the progress of people of color in any number of sectors--banking, law, consulting--has been pitifully slower. Solutions to the problem do not lie in irresponsibly fanning the flames of the "gender vs. race" argument, as Hillary Clinton seems to be doing. .

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where I spoke to a group of lawyers and social advocates, including three of the five Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) commissioners, I learned that white women voters in California and Michigan voted in favor of Propositions 209 and Proposal 2, both of which effectively ended affirmative action. Why would women, who had been assured equal opportunity under affirmative action, vote for such a measure? According to those who conducted interviews with them, because they believed that a vote for themselves and people of color was a vote against their white husbands and their white children.

We need to change this double standard where some are willing to see gender bias but unwilling to look in the mirror at one's own biases or to take action on any form of bias whether one is directly hurt by it. Instead of taking a stand, privileged white women have often opted out.

At a recent party celebrating the publication of my new book, I was asked by a privileged white woman why women don't support each other. This obvious reference to white women not lining up uniformly behind Hillary came from a woman with two Ivy League degrees who dropped out of the workforce to be home with her children. Another woman at the same gathering reflected that only one of the 100+ women from her MBA class was still working. As many studies find, the single greatest predictor of whether a woman lawyer or MBA stays in the workforce after having children is her husband's income. Why haven't these privileged women stayed to help make the workplace more welcoming for all of us?

To me, Hillary Clinton represents the status quo: privilege protecting privilege at the expense of less affluent or "connected" populations of our society -- especially with regard to creating a level playing field in American workplaces. I am supporting Barack Obama because he challenges us to build empathy, to care about others as much as ourselves, and to ask hard questions--such as who really has the unfair advantage?

Freada Kapor Klein, Ph.D. is the founder of the Level Playing Field Institute (www.l;pfi.org /www.l;pfi.org/> ) and the author of Giving Notice: Why the Best and the Brightest Leave the Workplace and How You Can Help Them Stay (Jossey-Bass, 2007)