Executive Bitch Slapping

Now that patriotism is a burka for all sorts of sins, it's hard to recall that, back before we fought to free women from the Taliban, bitch slapping was a major motif in American pop culture. The most popular performers spewed sexual hate, to the acclaim of critics who saw all sorts of progressive values in their screeds. Remember how the arbiters of hip assured us that backlash culture gave men a chance to butch up and women a chance to play girly with no implications for real life? Now comes evidence that, while we reveled in forbidden games, a corporate equivalent of the cultural backlash was taking shape in the highest echelons.

A report released last month by the General Accounting Office, under the talented prodding of representatives Carolyn Maloney and John Dingell, reveals that the wage gap between male and female managers has actually been growing wider. The survey studied the 10 industries that employ over 70 percent of women in the workforce. It used Census Bureau data collected between 1995 and 2000, at the height of the Clinton boom. It found that, in publicly funded professions such as education and health services, the management wage gap narrowed somewhat, but in industries less subject to government regulation, it broadened. The most dramatic reversals for women occurred in communications and entertainment, the very industries where the cultural backlash was manufactured and marketed. In communications, where female executives earned 86 cents for every dollar grossed by males in 1995, they earned 73 cents five years later. In entertainment, the gap went from 83 to only 62 cents on the dollar.

No one knows why this growing disparity exists. Business groups blame it on the fact that many women leave their jobs to have children, sacrificing seniority. But that's a constant occurrence, so it shouldn't account for the expanding gap. The most tangible explanation lies in the distinctive nature of the recent boom. "We didn't spread the wealth," notes demographer Martha Farnsworth Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau. "We grew the disparity."

This may explain why the wage gap for non-management workers has narrowed even as it widened at the top. The big bonuses and stock options didn't go to working men. Instead, as Riche notes, "The huge money went to the top 1 percent." And when you look at the proportion of women who hold these "clout positions," the numbers are truly shocking.

A 2001 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that women have only 3 percent of the top jobs in communications. They make up only 1 percent of top executives in entertainment and media companies. At the AOL/Time Warner combine, the percentage of top female execs is . . . zero. So where do women work in these corporations? Mostly in marketing, human resources, and public relations. Here, women make up nearly half the management staff. But in the boardroom, a very different ratio applies. According to the Annenberg study, there's only one female board member at AOL/Time Warner; at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., there are none. At major e-companies, the figures are not much better. Yahoo leads the pack with eight women out of 18 top executives, while Amazon has none. Consider that the next time you shop online.

As for print companies, little is known about their salary practices. The Census Bureau data used in the GAO report didn't include print media; nor has the industry produced a survey of its own. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reports that women represent 35 percent of newsroom supervisors, but it has no information on female managers' wages. Why should it, when so few media watchdogs keep track of such things? No major press critic saw fit to cover the GAO report (except for conservative Betsy Hart, who roundly criticized it). "Everyone sends things to me," says Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, "but I didn't hear anything about this." Apparently he wasn't aware of the page-two story about the report in his own paper. But you can't blame Kurtz. The story got a lot of play on women's cable channels like Oxygen as well as CNN (which has a surprisingly high number of female news executives), but it never made the networks' national news.

There were other disheartening findings in the report. Some 60 percent of female managers don't have families, while 60 percent of male managers do. This suggests that the pre-feminist dichotomy between career and kids still applies to women who aim high, at least in the profit-making private sector. Then there's the evidence that the wage gap increases as women age. This suggests that the oldest workplace rule of all -- a woman's looks count more than a great résumé -- is still in effect for executives in industries where men do all the hiring.

But the most revealing finding wasn't included in the GAO report. When I asked Riche whether the salary gap has widened between managers of different races, she said no. One reason why may be a growing sensitivity to race in corporate culture. But it's also true that the government monitors race more closely than gender. After all, the 14th Amendment requires courts to give race the strictest scrutiny, but a less stringent standard applies to sex except when it comes to voting. To Maloney, the most important thing the GAO report documents is the need for the Equal Rights Amendment, which she reintroduced last year. "If you have a country that won't even grant women status in the Constitution," Maloney says, "why are you surprised?"

Maloney and Dingell are planning to commission 10 more precisely targeted studies from the GAO. That's the only way to pin down the wage gap in the communications and entertainment industries. Last month's report from the Directors Guild of America offers a rare glimpse into the inequities of Hollywood. It showed that only 11 percent of the episodes in last season's top 40 TV shows were directed by women. But no one knows what goes on in the front offices of movie studios and record companies. The Motion Picture Association of America declined to comment on the GAO report, and the Recording Industry Association of America didn't return several phone calls. No doubt they were busy gussying up for the Grammys, where last year's bitch slappers are likely to be waving flags.

Not that pop culture produced this salary gap, any more than it causes crime. But there's a relationship between erotic fantasy and social reality. The sexy backlash messages that bombarded us throughout the '90s helped to create a climate in which women were less likely to focus on their economic interests than on meeting the expectations of alpha males. The war makes it even less likely that women will demand a fair share of wealth rather than concentrating on the studly qualities of soldiers and firemen. All this serves to keep the glass ceiling intact.

The media didn't just make the backlash, they lived it. And so have we all.

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