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Barbara & Shannon Kelley

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New Generation, Same Story?

Posted: 03/21/2012 10:20 am

Bryce Covert's recent post on The Nation's website got me thinking today. Covert wrote about an Accenture survey that found that Gen Y working women have the most positive outlook for women in the workplace of any other generation, and yet they're less likely than their male counterparts to proactively manage their careers or ask for a raise.

The Gen Y women surved also felt underpaid and said that their careers had taken a bigger hit than their male peers' once they became parents.

Whew. That's one hell of a disconnect, wouldn't you say? While I'm generally an unrepentant optimist, a study like this makes me question my approach. A positive attitude is well and good, but when young women declare themselves optimistic about women in the workplace in the very same survey in which they point out gender-based inequities, you kind of have to worry. Optimism is good. Complacency? Not so much.

The trouble is the message women have been fed: that feminism's work is over; the battle won. That's where the sense of optimism comes in. I went to an all-girls high school not too (too too) terribly long ago and spent my four plaid-skirted years surrounded by the enthusiastic and inspiring message that girls could do anything boys could do. Which is good, of course, because it's true -- except for peeing one's name in the snow.

But there's a little bit of trouble with that approach. One: You enter the real world largely unprepared for the injustices you will (yes, I said WILL) come up against as a woman. Two: When you do come up against them, you will assume they have only to do with you. That the situation -- your lesser paycheck; your unwillingness to "proactively manage your career or ask for a raise" for fear of bias or judgment; your employer's subtly shifting opportunities away once you've become a mom or the discrimination you'll face if you don't have kids -- and the fact that your male colleagues in either of those scenarios will likely be rewarded, seen as either a dependable family man or a guy who has the time to devote to his job, where you'll be perceived as a flight risk or cold and odd, respectively; the realization that if you want a killer career and your husband wants a killer career and you want kids, you're in for a daily struggle that may well lead to one of you "opting" out; that if, against these formidable odds, you do make it to the very top, you will find yourself wildly outnumbered -- is merely your problem. That it is personal, and not political. When, of course, it is exactly that. It is collective and it is political -- and change happens when we're willing to see it that way.

Don't get me wrong: We have come a long way (baby). Think about this: When my mom graduated from college, it was still totally legal for employment want ads to be segregated by gender. A company could list a managerial job in the men's want ads, a secretarial one in the women's. This was not the dark ages; this was the 1970s.  So clearly we've come a tremendous way since disco inferno.

But the fact that we've come so far does not mean that our work here is finished. The fact that we have much to be grateful for in no way precludes the many things we should be angry about. Take that pay gap, for example:

U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do... Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven't had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar.

April 17 of this year is Equal Pay Day. Don't let the delightful sounding name fool ya, though: that's the day that a woman's salary catches up to a man's... from last year. For doing the same job. Another way to look at that is like this: taken as a whole, from January through April 17, women are working for free.

So, clearly, we still have a hell of a way to go.

Or, I suppose, maybe I should rephrase: the world still has a hell of a way to go.

But who is going to be responsible for steering it in the right direction?

It occurs to me that perhaps these young women are right in their optimism -- or here's my Pollyanna side's spin, anyway: For centuries, men's roles have not changed. Whether buffalo or bacon, they were to bring it home. They were the hunters. They were to provide.

Women, on the other hand, have always adapted -- whether when acting the gatherers, surveying the environment to see what it had in store and shifting the game plan accordingly, or to a male-dominated workplace in which we nevertheless were able to ascend, bit by bit, to the point where we are today. We had to fight for the right to wear pants, for craps sake. Now, how many pairs of jeans are in your closet? Change is in our DNA. The office, corporate culture, political institutions -- these things aren't going to change themselves.

The angry part of me and the Pollyanna part come together in the faith that these women will eventually get angry on their own behalf: and once that happens, they'll see the rest of us, and they'll join us. And then we'll do what we've always done. We'll change things. A little anger will help. And so will a little optimism.

 
 
 

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