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Robert Drago

Robert Drago

Posted: September 30, 2010 12:22 PM

The U.S. Government Accountability Office's new glass ceiling report on women in management was just released by the Joint Economic Committee, and the news is bad. In a comparison of the years 2000 and 2007, women comprised 49% of non-managerial workers in both years, but their representation in management rose slightly from 39% to 40%.

Although the report does not say why things are still so bad, the numbers hint that marriage and children are part of the problem - but only for women. In 2007, 74% of the men in management were married, while that only held true for 59% of the women. While 57% of the men had no dependent children, 63% of the women had no children. Further, 27% of the men had at least two children, but only 20% of the women did.

These differences reflect what we call "bias avoidance strategies." Here's how it works. If you think your co-workers or bosses view care-giving commitments as a negative, then you will either avoid those commitments entirely or hide them when you have them. When men take on care-giving responsibilities, that's fine. It is automatically assumed that family will not interfere with work. On the other hand, when women take on care-giving roles, they are no longer taken seriously; instead, they are "just moms." Bias avoidance behaviors are rooted in the harsh reality that women still perform more housework and provide more childcare than men. However, young men are doing more housework and are more involved in childcare today than ever, yet the outdated workplace expectations that induce bias avoidance remain... No wonder women in management often avoid marriage and children.

The GAO report also highlights the economic incentives for bias avoidance. Among women in management without children, average pay rose from 81 cents to 83 cents for every dollar earned by males between 2000 and 2007. The story for women in management with children? Their earnings stayed flat at 79 cents on every dollar earned by male managers (and that is male managers with children).

Fortunately, many of our leading employers have recognized the economic danger inherent in forcing employees, and particularly women, to engage in bias avoidance strategies: we lose the productivity of many of our most talented citizens when they "choose" to make family commitments. Those employers, spotlighted annually by Working Mother magazine, strive to be family-responsive, and are much better at holding onto talented women (and men), regardless of care-giving commitments.

Unfortunately, our national response has been anemic, with around half of the workforce receiving unpaid time off for care-giving under the Family and Medical Leave Act. We can and should do more, including ensuring the provision of paid sick days with the proposed Healthy Families Act. The proposed act provides sick days both for one's own illness and to care for ill family members. Congress should also pass the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would promote the negotiation of work schedules that are win-win for both employers and families. Finally, because the wage gap exists for both mothers and non-mothers, we need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, to help equalize wage disparities between women and men.

We can do better, and if we do, those dismal numbers for women in management will improve.

This blog is part of the Peaceful Revolution series that explores innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.