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Equality and diversity make hard-headed business sense

marc johnsonOn the list of the Fortune 1000 you’ll find some of the greatest names in the world of business, but you’ll also find that only 46 of those companies on have a woman in the office of CEO. The reality in corporate America is pretty simple: The captains of industry are overwhelmingly male.

Women are also dramatically underrepresented in the board rooms of the nation’s biggest businesses and, while there are 20 female members of the United States Senate, an all-time record and a far cry from the from the days when women typically made it to the Senate only when their senator-husbands died, those numbers are still disproportionally small compared to women in the electorate.

By almost every measure, the rise of women in business, politics and the law has stalled. Idaho, for example, has no women on is highest court and hasn’t since 2007. And even though women have overtaken men in measures of educational advancement – more women than men graduate college – the big stall is in effect at every socioeconomic level.

The recent fast food strikes aimed at a higher minimum wage are, as Slate magazine pointed out, mostly about women: “This is a labor movement that is structured largely around the needs articulated by the working mothers in it, women who, with or without a partner, are often trying to raise families on minimum wage jobs. Women make up two-thirds of the fast food work force, and a quarter of workers are raising children.”

At the other end of the economic spectrum – the high end – a 2011 report by Catalyst, an outfit that tracks “critical statistics to gauge women’s advancement into leadership and highlights the gender diversity gap,” found that only 16 percent of all Fortune 500 board positions where held by women. Fewer than 3 percent of companies had a woman chairing the board of directors, and only 1 percent – a decline from a previous study – had as many as 40 percent  female board members. Eleven percent of Fortune 500 companies had no women in governance roles. Predictably, the numbers are even worse for women of color; 3 percent of board seats of the biggest companies in the United States are held by women of color, and 70 percent of the Fortune 500 has no women of color in any governance role.

Some Idaho-specific numbers to contemplate when next you order that Whopper from the woman behind the counter: The median income of a working woman in Idaho in 2012 was $18,772 – dead last in the nation, with Utah and Montana ahead. And just to put that $18,722 in context, the poverty level – as officially calculated by the government – is $23,550 for a family of four. A working mom in Idaho who is bringing home the state’s median income and supporting a couple of children is, to say the least, struggling.

But Idaho must be doing better for women in the management and professional ranks, right? Not so much. Nearly 47 percent of the Idaho workforce is made up of women, which is slightly below the national average, and just more than 35 percent of those women are employed in “management or professional” positions. That number puts Idaho well below the national average as the 49th state in the nation for women in more traditional “white-collar” jobs. Idaho is just ahead of Nevada and Hawaii, states with particularly high numbers of service-oriented jobs due to their tourism-based economies. Idaho’s regional neighbors do substantially better as measured by a percentage of women working in white-collar jobs: Utah is No. 41 in the nation, Montana No. 28, Oregon No. 25 and Washington No. 15.

So what’s going on here? From the highest reaches of corporate America to the neighborhood coffee shop, women seem not to be sharing anything like parity in the workplace with men, and the gaps haven’t been closing much at all.

Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of The End of Men, says we’ve focused too much on the “wage gap,” the well-worn statistic that women only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. The bigger issues, Rosin says, are “the deeper, more systemic discrimination of inadequate family-leave policies and child care options, of women defaulting to being the caretakers. Or of women deciding that they are suited to be nurses and teachers but not doctors. And in that more complicated discussion, you have to leave room at least for the option of choice – that women just don’t want to work the same way men do.”

Author and educator Stephanie Coontz, who spoke at a recent women and leadership conference convened by the Andrus Center at Boise State University, made essentially the same point in a New York Times essay earlier this year.

“Astonishingly,” Coontz wrote, “despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

“Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of ‘work-family reconciliation’ acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.”

The recent Andrus Center conference celebrated the unmistakable advancements our society has made in creating workplace equality for women, but the real world shouts to us that so much more remains to be done, including understanding that more equality and greater diversity actually improve the business bottom line.

Much research, including a July 2013 report from Catalyst, shows that organizations with higher numbers of women in leadership roles actually demonstrate better financial performance than firms that lack a critical mass of women leaders. A more diverse and equal workplace has also been shown to reduce employee turnover, improve job satisfaction and enhance employee engagement. One study found that business teams with an equal mix of men and women out-performed male-dominated teams in terms of sales and profit generated.

Improving the lot of women who work demands, as Dr. Coontz has written, that we “stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices.” Making more and faster progress is not simply a moral issue or a question of fairness, but rather a question of what kind of workplace we want, what kind of family life we desire and what type of economy we choose to embrace.

These are moral issues, but equality and diversity also make hard-headed business sense. Men should be just as engaged in the struggle as women, for every one of us has a major stake in how we address the real issues of women in the workforce.

Marc C. Johnson is a partner with Gallatin Public Affairs and serves as the volunteer president of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. This article was adapted from his blog, manythingsconsidered.com.

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