Tag Archives: women’s rights

Subtler Forms of Sexism

The #metoo movement has generated an overdue conversation about sexual harassment, hostile workplaces, and the difficulty many men and women seem to have in communicating with each other both in and out of the office.

That conversation is valuable, but we also need to recognize that some of the most pernicious ways women are getting screwed aren’t sexual.

A good friend of mine recently emailed me about an incredibly frustrating experience when she applied for a Lowe’s credit card. She and her husband are both retired. They have excellent credit–scores in the 800s. (For those of you unfamiliar with credit agency scoring, that is really good.)

When she applied for a Lowe’s credit card, however, she tells me she was denied “on the spot.”   When her husband then applied for the same credit card, he was approved on the spot.

She and her husband file joint tax returns, and own most of their assets–including a home and a vacation home– jointly. When she wrote a letter to the bank that issues Lowe’s credit card, asking for specific reasons for the denial, she was told that the reason was her lack of debt (she has none at all–unlike most Americans, she and her husband have paid everything off).

That explanation raises two obvious questions: why on earth should a lack of debt be disqualifying? and if for some bizarre reason it is, why didn’t it disqualify her husband, who is equally “debt-less”?

My friend and her husband have similar work and income histories; as retirees, they receive virtually identical social security and other retirement payments.(My friend has her own 401(k) and a pension, both of which she included on the application.) Why was he more creditworthy than she?

Unless there’s something weird she’s omitting, it certainly appears that the issuer of this credit card applies different standards to men and women. He is evidently more creditworthy because he’s a he.

My friend’s experience is infuriating, but not unusual. We sometimes forget that the idea of gender equity is relatively recent; when I went to law school, there were plenty of people–male and female–who found the idea of a woman with children working scandalous, and let me know it.  I was an adult before women could have credit ratings separate from those of our fathers or husbands.

“You’ve come a long way, baby” makes for a great cigarette ad, but it doesn’t reflect the reality that we also have a long way to go. Cultural assumptions–the man as breadwinner, the male as serious, superior and thus entitled–die hard. For generations, business and government and social institutions incorporated those cultural assumptions;  obsolete as they may be in today’s world, they persist.

Too bad we no longer have local investigative reporters. A systematic research project focusing on the degree to which women are still not treated equally by the businesses that invite our patronage would make a fascinating series.

If any of my friends from the Kelly School are reading this, I’d love to hear a business school perspective on this!

Monetizing Motherhood

As long as we’re on the subject of women…

Some countries have social policies that make it less stressful to combine motherhood and career. Not the good old US of A.

In the absence of benefits like widespread maternity leave and accessible and affordable day care, American women who want to combine careers and motherhood are making “interesting” choices.

About two dozen women ate cheese and canapés in a swanky Midtown Manhattan building in early December. It could have been mistaken for a networking event if it weren’t for the women’s singular focus – egg freezing.

Formally called “oocyte cryopreservation”, egg freezing has boomed over the last decade. Since 2009, there has been an 11-fold increase in the number of women who choose to “bank” their eggs. During that time, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine officially removed its “experimental” designation.

“It’s a conversation more women need to talk about, just like miscarriages and periods,” said Florence Ng, a 35-year-old real estate broker in New York City who froze her eggs this year. “These are really important and relevant today.”

Now, Wall Street is taking notice of the fertility industry. Analysts see it as one “ripe for a merger and acquisition cycle”, according to one group.

As the article notes, a new breed of fertility clinic is selling a promise: that capitalism and technology can buy women time. And this being the good old US of A, where government provides very little in the way of a social infrastructure, “entrepreneurs” see dollar signs in career women’s dilemma.

“The US Fertility Clinic market has come of age and is ripe for a merger and acquisition cycle,” wrote Capstone Partners, an investment banking firm, in early 2017.

“The wave is already beginning,” the firm wrote, ticking off a raft of private equity and venture capital firms that recently purchased clinics: TA Associates, MTS Health Partners, Lee Equity Partners, TPG Biotech, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Extend Fertility is partially owned by a hedge fund called North Peak Capital LLC.

“The trend for couples to marry later in life and to delay starting a family in pursuit of professional careers and financial security is also boosting demand for fertility services and accelerating industry growth,” wrote Capstone.

Men, of course, can make new sperm throughout their lives; we women are born with all of our eggs. If we use them to make babies in our 20s, most of those eggs will be good. But as we age, we’ll not only have fewer eggs, but a higher proportion them will be abnormal. By our mid-40s, most fertility doctors believe it will require donor eggs to get pregnant.

Egg freezing, once reserved for cancer patients, is increasingly sold as the solution to this problem…

Women are encouraged to freeze their eggs as young as possible – in their 20s preferably – to ensure the largest number are viable.

“Freeze your eggs!” said one Extend Fertility ad on Instagram. “Take control of your biological future – freeze your eggs and freeze time”. Extend pitches testimonials from women who have already frozen their eggs as “masters of time”.

Is this really the way we want Americans to address the issue of women in the workforce? Do we really want to make motherhood a consumer item, convenient only for those who can afford the blessings of technology? What about women who have “jobs” rather than careers, and cannot afford pricey egg freezing? What about women who prefer to have children while they are relatively young, rather than waiting until they are mistaken for their child’s grandmother–if they can conceive at all?

Other countries provide well-baby clinics, maternity supports, child care and other social supports that allow women to participate in the economy while providing for their children.

What does the lack of support for working mothers say about the value Americans place on women and children?

 

About Those Dire Predictions…

Today is the second annual Women’s March.

The first one was followed by an eventful year for women–from #metoo to vastly increased civic activism to record numbers of women running for political office. Those activities haven’t been universally applauded, but that’s nothing new. Every time we women assert ourselves, we are met with the usual warnings: children will be neglected or traumatized, marriages will fail, society will suffer, we women will enter old age embittered and alone.

I know the defenders of patriarchy will be disappointed, but it really doesn’t work that way.

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stephanie Coontz’ book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, in which–among other things–Coontz reminded us that “Leave it to Beaver” wasn’t a documentary. In 2016, she updated the book, and the Council on Contemporary Families, a research institute she heads, issued a report on some of the data that would be part of the revision. That data just goes to show how often all those dire predictions about the effects of social change turn out to be wrong.

A few examples:

In the early 1990s, there was much hand-wringing about “scarlet women” and rising out-of-wedlock births; the warning was that the children would become juvenile “super predators,” morally-impoverished and violent.

But between 1993 and 2010, sexual assaults and intimate partner violence dropped by more than 60 percent. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since the records began in 1960. Since 1994, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the proportion of children born out of wedlock has risen to 40 percent.

We were warned that women who were selfish enough to pursue both motherhood and careers would inevitably “outsource” our maternal responsibilities and/or neglect our children. We can skip the guilt. (Now they tell me!)

Today, both single and working moms spend more time with their children than married homemaker mothers did back in 1965. And, according to David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Paula England’s brief report on Moms and Jobs, educated professionals – the women most likely to work outside the home – spend many more hours in child care than their less-educated counterparts.

Remember when pundits and scolds warned that no-fault divorce laws spelled the end of the American family?

In each state that adopted no-fault, the next five years saw an eight to 16 percent decline in suicide rate of wives and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence. Although no-fault divorce is now universal, divorce rates are actually falling.

Well–so maybe no-fault divorce didn’t destroy the institution of marriage, but legal recognition of same-sex marriage will surely do it; for one thing, it will never be accepted by the American public; for another, think of the children!

As late as 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same sex marriage, with just 27 percent in favor. Yet by 2011, 53 percent favored same-sex marriage, paving the way for its legalization in 2015. Definitive, long-term studies now show that children raised by two parents of the same sex turn out fine.

There’s much more, but you all get the drift. Bottom line: keeping marriage and the unequal relations between the sexes “the way they always were” is neither necessary nor desirable.

Ironically, although the public has adapted, politicians and government haven’t.

Since 1993, the federal government has made no substantive progress toward policies that help women and men reconcile work and family obligations, while other countries have leapt ahead. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave workers in large companies up to 12 weeks unpaid job-protected leave. But 23 years later, only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, limits the maximum length of the work week, and mandates paid annual vacations. Most also offer paid leave to fathers. The result? American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than their European counterparts. And the U.S. has fallen from 6th to 17th place in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1990. The one exception to this backwardness? The Pentagon, which runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country and just instituted 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

Other things that haven’t improved in the past quarter-century? Women’s reproductive rights and wage inequality. And as the #metoo movement has illustrated, sexual harassment.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Oprah predicted that “change is coming.” As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough.

Meanwhile, I’m going to the March.

Why Haven’t We Heard About This?

Back in March, the British newspaper The Spectator ran a troubling story implicating free speech, feminism, Islam…all subjects that typically command a lot of attention in the U.S. 

Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth.

Wallström went on to condemn the Saudi courts for ordering that Raif Badawi receive ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed secularism and free speech. These were ‘mediaeval methods’, she said, and a ‘cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression’.

She also opined that Swedish cooperation with the Saudi military was unethical.

Following her remarks, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden. It also stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen. The United Arab Emirates joined it. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 56 Muslim-majority states, issued a statement accusing Sweden of failing to respect the world’s ‘rich and varied ethical standards,’ and the Gulf Co-operation Council condemned her ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’

And how did Sweden–a country most of us think of as a bastion of democracy and a defender of free speech–react?

Thirty chief executives signed a letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardise Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner’. No less a figure than His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf himself hauled Wallström in at the weekend to tell her that he wanted a compromise. Saudi Arabia has successfully turned criticism of its brutal version of Islam into an attack on all Muslims, regardless of whether they are Wahhabis or not, and Wallström and her colleagues are clearly unnerved by accusations of Islamophobia. The signs are that she will fold under the pressure, particularly when the rest of liberal Europe shows no interest in supporting her.

My question is: why has the American media failed to cover this? Why has social media been silent?

Have I missed an outcry? A public debate over the relative importance of free speech and diplomacy? Or could it be that this effort to silence Wallstrom is different because she’s a woman, complaining about the treatment of women?

Truth in Numbers

Harper’s Magazine has a long-running feature called Harper’s Index, where they provide survey results without commentary. The subject-matter of those surveys varies widely, but they are generally thought-provoking, and these recent numbers provided the usual food for thought:

• Rank of “attire” among the leading reasons “millennials” are unsuccessful in job interviews: 1

• Rank of their posting inappropriate pictures on social media: 2

• Average salary earned by a full-time-employed male college graduate one year after graduation: $42,918

• By a full-time-employed female graduate: $35,296

• Percentage of Canadians who believe in global warming: 98

• Of Americans who do: 70

• Of Republicans: 48

The numbers prompt a number of observations.

To my older grandchildren, I will simply reiterate my warnings about posting those pictures of partying on Facebook. Your friends may think that goofy drunk face is funny, but future employers will not appreciate the humor. Nor will they conclude that you really can use the English language if you persist in sharing incomprehensible “street language” sentiments. Listen to your grandmother–and pull up those pants!

To my friends of the female gender, I know that confirmation of the persistence of the wage gap doesn’t really surprise us, but it should at least give us a wake-up call. After years of work agitating for women’s rights and w0rking for equity and equal pay for equal work, we still have a long way to go. Let’s gird those loins, ladies, and get back to it!

To the fearful ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand science and climate-change deniers, I have nothing to say. They don’t listen to experts and they reject both scientific research and the evidence of their own experience. They aren’t going to listen to me. They aren’t going to accept the reality of climate change until they’re sitting on an oceanside beach in Indiana. Thanks to them, however, the rest of us are going to have to work harder and smarter in order to overcome their resistance and enact policies that will address global climate change and–hopefully–avert accelerating disasters.

Happy holidays.