6 Myths About Female Ascendance in the Workplace

The following is an adapted excerpt from The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy. Copyright © 2013 by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., Reprinted with permission of Tarcher/Penguin, New York, NY.

Myth 1: Women are the workforce winners these days.

It's true that men got hit hard in 2008 when manufacturing and construction took a nosedive, giving rise to the term "Mancession." But in the last two years, as a recovery slowly moved ahead, men fared much better than women — the so-called Mancovery.

Now, the 2008 situation has reversed, thanks to the heavy toll of the weak economy on public sector workers. According to a National Women's Law Center report published in September, recent jobs data show that public sector layoffs wiped away 45 percent of job gains for women over the course of the recovery.

Myth 2: Because women outnumber men in college classrooms, they will replace men in the "broad striving middle class" that "defines society and provides leaders.”

This is Hanna Rosin’s argument in "The End of Men.” But numbers alone aren't decisive; there is a real question about whether women will ever attain leadership positions in the areas for which they have been trained.

A report from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation found that so far, women's earnings have not kept up with their gains in educational attainment. Even though women earn more advanced degrees than men, their wages still trail far behind. Catalyst reports that female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school. Women financial analysts take in 35 percent less, and female chief executives one-quarter less. Salary gains that female managers acquired in the 1980s and 1990s have dropped off, and men's salaries are pulling far ahead once again. Women start behind and never catch up.

Myth 3: Women have made huge gains in large companies and will soon dominate the corporate ranks.

Men still dominate the top levels of American companies and their dominance is increasing. While women have indeed made enormous strides over the last 40 years, their gains appear to be slowing. Catalyst, a nonprofit research group that seeks to further women's roles in business, has studied the gender gap at the top ranks in the U.S. and found that it's no closer to closing than it was six years ago. In 2012, figures show glacial progress in increasing female representation, according to Catalyst. The group dubbed such progress “flat, static, immobile, inert,” and its CEO, Ilene H. Lang, said, “If this trend line represented a patient’s pulse—she’d be dead.”

The number of women promoted to board seats in Fortune 500 companies, which had steadily increased in the late twentieth century, has dropped over the past three years. A major report by the international consulting firm McKinsey that was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal found that “despite the sincere efforts of major corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy. Overall, this picture has not improved for years.”

Myth 4: Women are on track to become “the richer sex” and replace men as primary breadwinners in American families.

Some data appear to support this notion, but they are packaged in a sensational and misleading way. 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported that one in four women out-earn their spouses. But In fact, the only segment of society in which a substantial percent of wives significantly out-earn their husbands is low-income workers, those in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. Such couples bring home a total of roughly $20,000 per year.

A recent Gallup study is similarly misleading. The claim is that roughly forty percent of mothers are the primary breadwinners. But the majority of the women in this study are not even married. So whom are they out-earning?

In no area of 13 industrial sectors did women earn more than men. At no educational level did women earn more than men. And in none of the 22 countries studied did women earn more than men. In fact, the wealthier the couple, the less likely it is that the wife will out-earn her husband. Anne Winkler of the University of Missouri points out that when you look at women who really are the primary breadwinners — who earn 60% of family income or more — the figure drops to about 10%. The often-repeated claim that women are the richer sex is bogus.

Myth 5: Men don’t have advantages in the workplace anymore, so women can soar.

Not at all true, thanks in part, to these facts:

No second chances. When they fail, women don’t get second chances, reports the Athena Factor project, sponsored by IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and others to better understand how to retain women in technology. Women in high positions in male-dominated fields suffer harsher penalties than men when they slip up. Men usually get a second chance, even when they reach high but miss the brass ring. It’s much harder for women to take the kind of risks that catch the eye of higher-ups.

Men are promoted on potential, women on performance. Why do so many young male hotshots move up the ladder ahead of their more seasoned female peers? Women are being judged on what they have actually done. For promising men, potential is enough to win the day. Women always have to keep proving themselves, often fighting the stereotype that they don’t have what it takes to be real leaders.

Myth 6: Men and women have equal opportunities to rise just as quickly in the workforce.

Even in female-dominated fields, men get on “The Glass Escalator.” They rise faster and higher than equally qualified women. Men are now gravitating toward female-dominated occupations. From 2000 to 2010, female-dominated occupations (those that were more than 70 percent female) constituted roughly a third of male job growth, twice as much as in the previous decade.

Men who move into what used to be female territory are doing very well—better than women, in fact. In the twenty most common occupations for women, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, men out-earn women in all but two. White men get a double boost from being white and male and rise more quickly than equally qualified women and non- white men in position, pay and benefits.

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