This Is What Women Want
The following is an original essay by Deborah L. Rhode, author of the new book What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women's Movement. Printed with permission of Oxford University Press.
In a New Yorker cartoon, a woman frostily informs her obviously skeptical husband, “Yes, Harold, I do speak for all women.” This is not a claim any contemporary feminist will readily make. Women do not speak with one voice on women’s issues. But to build a powerful political movement, we have to be prepared to generalize about the interests of women as a group. What would most women want if they were fully informed and free to choose, and the goal was true equality between the sexes? What Women Want seeks to jumpstart a conversation about that agenda by surveying leaders of women’ s organizations and synthesizing a broad array of research on what holds women back.
A central problem in securing such gender equality is the “no problem” problem: the lack of consensus that there still is a serious problem, or one that individual women have any capacity or responsibility to address. Yet on virtually every major dimension of social status, financial well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive rights are by no means secure. Women assume disproportionate burdens in the home and pay a price in the world outside it. But these issues are not cultural priorities. What accounts for that fact?
Part of the problem is the image of the feminist movement, as strident and man hating, which keeps many women from identifying as feminists or actively supporting the feminist agenda. Although when dictionary definitions of feminist are given, as someone who supports political, economic and social equality for women, between two thirds to four fifths of women consider themselves feminists. When no definition is given, the figure drops to a quarter to a half. Surveys of life satisfaction find that women do not feel worse off than men, so they lack the urgency that would fuel political activism.
What are the issues that should motivate women to seek change? Employment is an area ripe for reform. The labor force remains gender-segregated and gender-stratified, with women still overrepresented at the bottom and underrepresented at the top. Last year was the 50th anniversary of equal pay legislation, and we remain a considerable distance from accomplishing its promise. Full-time female workers’ annual earnings are 77 percent of men’s, a gap that has not substantially changed since 2001. At current rates of change it would take another half century to achieve equal pay rates for full-time workers. One reason for the gender gap is that women are clustered in lower-earning occupations, and lower-paying sectors within occupations. In law, they are 86 percent of paralegals but only 33 percent of lawyers and 16 percent of partners in large firms. In management, women constitute a third of MBA graduates, but less than 4 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs and 14 percent of corporate officers. At current rates of change, it would take over two and a half centuries to achieve parity in the executive suite.
Similarly situated women also earn less than men. Even after controlling for a broad range of factors, such as education, experience, training, and family characteristics, most research finds that a gender gap in earnings persists, typically on the order of at least 8 to 2 percent. At every educational level and in every occupational field, women have lower earnings. Even female dishwashers earn significantly less than males.
Despite recent progress, women, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, often lack the presumption of competence enjoyed by white men, and need to work harder to achieve the same results. A telling case study in the extent of unconscious bias involves orchestra auditions. When screens were introduced so that the sex of musicians was no longer visible, women’s representation in symphony orchestras dramatically increased.
Part of the problem may also reflect the mismatch between qualities associated with leadership and qualities associated with women. Most of the traits that people attribute to leaders are masculine: dominance, authority, assertiveness. To many, these do not seem attractive in women. Women are subject to double standards and double binds. What is assertive in a man seems abrasive in a woman. Female employees risk seeming too feminine or not feminine enough—either not tough enough to make the hard calls or overly strident and aggressive. Jill Abramson, the allegedly “pushy” editor dismissed from the New York Times, is a textbook case.
Regressive governmental and corporate policies also hold women back. The United States has the least family-friendly policies in the developed world. It stands alone with only seven other countries in not guaranteeing paid maternity leave. American policies concerning childcare, part-time work and flexible schedules are far less progressive than Western Europe’s. Sixty percent of children under five are in non-parental care and many of these arrangements are lacking in quality, affordability and flexibility. Neither regulatory structures nor market conditions encourage well-trained service providers. This nation requires licensing to be a manicurist, but only a dozen states require training to care for children.
So too, men’s family patterns have not kept pace with women’s workplace obligations. Although fathers’ share of domestic obligations has increased dramatically over the last half century, mothers continue to shoulder disproportionate work in the home and to pay a price in the world outside it. The disparities are especially pronounced among those who opt out of the labor force. About a quarter of married women with children under 15 are stay-at-home mothers; fewer than 1 percent of married men with children under 15 are stay-at-home fathers. Women also spend over twice as much time on care of children and over three times as much time on household tasks as men. Yet as Gloria Steinem has noted, “Women will never be equal outside the home until men are equal inside the home.”
The solutions are obvious but elusive. Women need legislation and workplace initiatives that secure equal pay for comparable work, paid parental leaves, flexible work structures, and affordable quality childcare. And they need to challenge cultural norms that penalize leadership behavior in women and equal caretaking by men.
Women also need greater protection of reproductive rights. About a quarter of family planning clinics report incidents of severe violence annually against providers of abortion services. “Operation Housecall” organizes activists to target doctors’ homes for harassment, and other groups use media campaigns to run slogans like “Some doctors deliver babies. Some doctors kill babies.” Over 85 percent of counties have no abortion provider, and a third to a fifth of poor women cannot obtain abortions that they desire. Anti-abortion activists have also succeeded in passing a broad array of restrictive statutes designed to make abortion more costly and less accessible. More than half of states have TRAP laws—Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. These statutes seek to force clinic closures by imposing expensive requirements, such as demanding that clinic facilities meet similar building standards as hospitals. Almost three quarters of states require women seeking abortions to wait a specified period of time between when they receive counseling and when they obtain the procedure, sometimes as long as 72 hours. These waiting periods increase the expense and difficulty for women who do not live close to an abortion provider.
Although women differ on the morality of abortion, most can unite around the goal of making them safe and unnecessary. More resources should be targeted at ensuring that women, particularly poor and adolescent women, have adequate access to family planning information and assistance.
More resources also need to go to supporting the one in seven women who are poor. Only about a quarter of those living in poverty are receiving welfare, and benefits are 50 percent below the poverty line. The human costs are substantial. Millions of families suffer from shortages in food and housing, and the inadequate safety net keeps many women trapped in violent relationships. Ronald Reagan once famously quipped that “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” The battle lines are still drawn and women cannot settle for defeat.
Rape and domestic violence also call for more effective enforcement strategies. An estimated 25 percent of women have experienced domestic violence and 16 to 18 percent of women have experienced an attempted or completed rape. The United States as the highest rate of spousal homicide and the second highest rate of reported rape in the developed world. A common response to response to domestic abuse is, Why doesn’t she just leave?” But the answer too often is that she has nowhere safe to go. The time when women are most likely to suffer injuries in an intimate relationship is when trying to end it and shelters for victims come nowhere close to meeting the need; some turn away as many as 5,000 requests a year. We urgently need better strategies for prevention and victim support.
Part of the way to move this agenda forward is to put more women in leadership positions. In elective office, women account for just 18 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state legislatures, and 10 percent of governors. The United States ranks 78th in the world for women’s representation in political office, below Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. Women’s underrepresentation is especially troubling because women are disproportionately likely to make women’s issues a priority. Over a century ago, newspaper editor William Allen White advised women to “raise more hell and fewer dahlias.” It remains good advice.