Rosalind Barnett on The Campbell Conversations

Jan 19, 2014

In a recently published book, Brandeis University researcher Rosalind Barnett argues that there is a new “soft war” on women, which is reinforcing gender inequality and harming not only women, but also men and the general economy.  This war is being fueled in part by a growing “myth” that women have largely accomplished their historic struggle for equality.  In this edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher explores those arguments with Barnett, the co-author of The New Soft War on Women.

  Full interview transcript:

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, my guest today is Rosalind Barnett. She is a Senior Scientist at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and the co-author with Caryl Rivers of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy.” Doctor Barnett, welcome to the program.

Dr. Rosalind Barnett (RB): Thank you for having me.

GR: Let’s start with the book’s title. You have got this phrase “the myth of female ascendance.” Before we debunk the myth let’s start with what is that myth?

RB: Okay, well the myth is that women have broken through the glass ceiling, that all the battles have been fought, that women now have a bright future and the sky is the limit and that, the problems are all in the past. That is a big story in the media, it is fueled every now and then by some wonderful events that some woman has made. The myth around that is that when one woman has made it, like the new president of GM for example, that it is fair for everybody. And that has fueled the whole lot of problematic consequences including the fact that if other women – most women, average women – think that the battles have all been fought but they are not making any progress then they end up concluding that it is their fault. It must be something they haven’t done, maybe they need another course, maybe I need some more time on the job, and they skip over the fact that there is still systematic bias against women. Some of it is much less than was before, but nevertheless there is systemic problems that have not yet been addressed so that women are – when they start to think it is all on their shoulders they lose the oomph of the fight, you know, the tendency to get together and do what they can as a group to make things better for themselves.

GR: And you anticipated the other thing I wanted to ask you related to that, in talking about the example of the CEO of GM. I was curious to know whether there any other current realities or trend lines that fuel that myth. It sounds like in part it is kind of the great women of history problem or I was thinking of the often reported statistic about women in college now, more women than men.

RB: Yes, that is repeated over and over. If we take a hard look at that figure there are two things to say about it. If you look at only at college enrollments among the traditional college age students then you find that this nonsense they were saying where it is 51% to 49. What I mean by that is a large number of women – older women; women of color - are adding to the ranks of women, but they are not the women who are the picture you get when you talk about sixty percent of college seats are occupied by women. It is not really true, all these are non-traditional women. So it is a little bit false - but that is another story that seems to keep getting repeated over and over without taking a hard look at who are these women that constitute the 60 percent. And it is also true that when you have 60 percent of women it doesn’t say or mean that women are distributed that way across all majors or all fields of concentration. So there is still very important sex segregation among college students and what they are taking, what they are preparing themselves for after college.

GR: Just say a bit more about that, I think that we probably have some ideas about those fields, but then it is important to get that out there.

RB: Well women are very under-represented in what you would call STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. They are over represented in things like education and social sciences. There is nothing wrong with that but in terms of the future, the high paying jobs of the future, are in these STEM fields, not exclusively of course.  But women are very under-represented in these fields and that is a problem. So women have segregated themselves out of certain areas of education and they then put themselves at a disadvantage in the marketplace of the future.

GR: Okay, so now that we have got that, let’s turn to now the basic facts of reality that dispel that myth. I assume that is where the “soft war” in your title comes into play. What is the actual situation for women?

RB:  Well now where you look, I will give you a few examples; they are connected of course but when you look across occupations it is true that men are now moving more than before into women’s occupations, so we have more male nurses, male teachers, and social workers, so forth. However, in every occupation, whether it is female dominated or not, when men are in those fields they make more money than women and often significantly more.

So no one goes out intentionally to pay women less but it is part of the sex stereotyping of our culture that men are seen to be more driven, more ambitious, more leadership qualities and they end up getting a premium in terms of their salaries. And this is a bit true across the board even when you have let’s say men and women graduating from MBA programs. They are a select group of people just fresh out of school--their starting salaries--women on the average make a forty five or forty six hundred dollars a year less than men and that difference grows over time. So by the time you get to the top of the corporate ladder, the differences are remarkable. In fact, over the lifetime or their work time, women are on average going to earn at least a hundred thousand less than men with the same degree.

GR: Now that was pay that you focused in on.  I’m sure this is related to it but what about achieving different positions in the hierarchy and moving up in terms of positions and not just in terms of what, say, an MBA coming out with beginning pay.

RB: Sure, there is one study that shows that the percentage of women on corporate boards has been either flat or declining over the last several years. Adrienne Lang, who is president of Catalyst, a major research advocacy group, says that if you look at those trend lines and that if we are talking about a patient, that patient would be dead. There is no growth; in fact, there is a lot of concern about where are all the women.

There was an article about Twitter, that a lot of the customers of their organization are female, but there is not one woman on the board. And this is true in a lot of Tech Companies and in general – women being under-represented in corporate boards and high level C-suite positions is not improving. This is not a question of talent; we find that in other countries women are making much better progress than they are here.  So something else is going on in the United States.

GR: What are some other countries where the progress has been much better?

RB: Well, you can almost name it. If you look at the Western European countries, part of the improvement there has been due to the fact that there is a quota in place. In England or in France and Scandinavian countries it is now required to have X percent of corporate seats to be held by women, and that has obviously made a big difference. In fact, in France that ruling – I believe it went into effect in 2010 or might have been 2011 – by virtue of having that in place, the goals that it was supposed to achieve, they were achieving it ahead of time.

So when people realized, “Oh my gosh, you know, look at us, we haven’t been doing our thing here.” And now that we have to pay attention to these women, that they find them capable of taking on these positions. In Australia, a very interesting case - they used a different attack, they found out based on the research that companies with a higher percentage of women in senior corporate positions are doing better towards their bottom-line. So the argument now is no longer about gender inequity, they are doing the right thing. Rather it is saying, we are making a business case for including more women in senior positions. In fact now their equivalent of the stock exchange, the companies on that exchange have to report the number of women or percent rather of women on their boards. The idea being that Investors are going to want to invest in companies who have a better general distribution because those are companies that tend to have a better performance. So a lot of different countries are taking different approaches to try to right this gender inequity.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with Rosalind Barnett, a researcher at Brandeis University and the co-author of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy.

Well you make the claim right in your title that that myth is hurting not only women but also men and our general economy. I wanted to hear a little more about that because it seems to me that having the myth of power, the appearance of power, can often help people actually to gain more power. So how is the myth, as a myth, hurting things?

RB: Well I think your premise is right but it doesn’t work for women.  There is a stage that shows that women think that they have done it all and grown past the glass ceiling, they tend to lose their feminism, they tend not to be advocating for themselves, thinking that it is all over, so that’s a problem. Now, in terms of men, since most couples now – most people who are married  . . . if the wife is not earning what she would be earning given her talent and her experience, she is obviously going to affect the bottom-line for couples. So it becomes an issue for men as well as women to make sure that their spouses are being treated fairly in the workplace. And I mentioned before that there is a stream of events to show that performance of companies does better when there are more women sitting in these important positions. So when women aren’t promoted, when they aren’t given the opportunities to show that what they can do and what they can contribute, the whole company is going to suffer.

GR: I was also curious to know how your book fits in with Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which has gotten a lot of attention. Is she in part advancing the myth that you are trying to bust?

RB: Well, let’s see, that’s a good question. Sheryl Sandberg is a very special person and she wrote a very interesting book. Our book is different in that it is not a book about “look what I have done with my life.” It is a book that is based on solid social science research written in a very accessible journalistic voice with a lot of interviews that we did in writing the book. So it applies more sort of a general cut though the population; not everybody can do what Sheryl Sandberg could do. She is a CEO of Facebook and she is in a special position. It is important that she raise this issue that women can be managers, they can be leaders. It is important to recognize but it is not clear that her experience is going to be applicable generally to other women.

GR: You’ve got a very interesting chapter in your book titled “The glass cliff and the glass escalator.” We have all heard about the glass ceiling, so what is the glass cliff and the glass escalator?

RB: Okay, let’s start with the glass cliff. There is a statistic that shows that women are often promoted to high level positions when the company we are talking about is in trouble. So the idea being, “Well we are in trouble, what the heck? Let’s give it to a woman and see what she can do.”  So women get into these positions when a company is already on a slide down, and then if a company does in fact go down and then people will say, “See, put a woman in charge and we have all kinds of problems.” So that is the glass cliff, it’s a precarious position for women who come into situations like that and there are examples in our book about women who have been in that situation.

The glass escalator is a very different kind of phenomenon.  I mentioned earlier that men are increasingly moving into female-dominated occupations, but what happens when men come into a field like, say, nursing for example?  They tend to be promoted much more quickly than women. They get promoted right through the top so they become the director or the supervisor and that is what we call the glass escalator. And it is interesting that people who are doing the promoting tend to be women. So women in these senior positions were more likely to promote men, particularly white men, than they are to promote women. So men get an easier time whereas when women who go into male dominated occupations--this is what they get: Much more scrutiny, and a much harder time making any type of progress. For men it is quite the opposite.

GR: You’re listening to the Campbell Conversations, I’m Grant Reeher. We’ll continue the conversation after a short break.


GR: Welcome back to the Campbell Conversations, my guest is Rosalind Barnett. She’s a Senior Scientist at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and the co-author of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy.” You mentioned earlier some countries that did better on this than the United States. Are there particular companies that deal with gender equality issues particularly well or are there types of companies that do this particularly well?

RB: Oh that’s a good question. I really don’t think I can answer that directly not because it’s not a good question but I just don’t know. This is more generally that in our country…well not just in our country but a lot of other companies will have on their books gender equity policies. Policies that are meant and designed to give women their chance, but in this country there is little commitment to those policies, especially in upper management positions. So it’s like saying, “Well, I have done this bit for women” and I see it. Check that box so I have something that says whether it is flexible work arrangements or child care benefits, but there is no push behind it.

So women really aren’t getting the advantage that these policies might otherwise give them, in fact, there is a fair bit of research that shows women do take advantage of these policies, but they lose out in salaries and promotions. They get penalized for taking up these policies. So it is like saying, well we have flexibility in our books but usable flexibility, well that’s a different story. Try to use it and you’re going to be dinged.

GR: And I know, or I think I know, that the Federal Government is known for having a more diverse work force and upper management echelons, relative to the corporate sector. Does it do a better job as an employer than other companies when it comes to gender equality and if so, what would you attribute it to?

RB:  Well one of the things . . . I think the answer to the first part is yes, they do better. And one of the reasons is that the pay and grade levels are public. So let’s say you’re a GS 7, you know what GS7’s make and you know what they make in terms of tenure on the job. So you as a woman are in a much better position to say to your boss like, “Hey, you know Joe over there is also a GS 7 and he and I have been working here the same length of time but I’m not making what he’s making according to the data.”

So they have a much stronger case to make. That information by and large is not public in the private sector so women are much disadvantaged, they don’t know what men in the same position are likely to be making.

GR: In case you’ve just joined us you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations and I’m talking to Brandeis University gender researcher Rosalind Barnett. I wanted to come back to the myth problem again. I get the sense from conversations with my College students that they think this war has pretty much been won. They don’t see it as a big issue. Is that your sense for younger women and for girls?

RB: I think it is true. I think that is one of the reasons why the feminism doesn’t have any oomph behind it anymore and that is part of this myth. Because when you peel off the top of that story you find that women for example - the first equal pay act was passed fifty years ago, 1963 -- women are still earning on average 77 cents per dollar; it’s almost as if there is no change at all. Sure, in certain areas you find some change. But overall the picture is very stagnant. So this myth, it defangs motivation. But where you look, you may find women in entry level positions, but when we move up the ladder there are very, very few and far between.

Now where have women made the biggest progress? Certainly they have made very big strides in the academy. More than half of degrees earned, bachelors, masters, PHD and professional level degrees are now earned by women. Which is remarkable in change, but when you get to the workplace those degrees do not translate into opportunities like they do for men, and that is a real problem.

GR: I also understand that you have a clinical psychology practice, and through that experience have you seen a change over the years and the way that women think about and struggle with this problem?

RB: Uh, yeah. Sure, it’s very frustrating when you don’t know what else you can do. And it makes people very angry and it makes them feel discouraged. But again, it’s part of they why take it as a personal situation. If they can be helped by a book like this they say, “Wait a minute, the things that the company is doing is not my fault. That can be rectified, that will make it easier for me to make…” That is more motivating and mobilizing and there are indeed things that . . .  in fact no woman can do it on their own. The “Lean In” book that you mentioned earlier; that can only go so far. You know, women can’t do this on their own; they need the support of their corporations and we need fairer policies. We are one of the few countries that have no paid child or maternity leave, no paid child here, no systems to help women. In fact, it’s sort of a miracle that women are doing as well as they are doing given the dearth of policy support that we have here.

GR:  Yeah, I had former governor Madeleine Kunin on the program several weeks ago and she was talking about some of those policies. I wanted to actually ask you about a different part of your book, not so much about policy, but specific advice for women in the workplace. Your book has some of that. It has some specific advice about women in the workplace who are trying to win this new soft war. What are the most important pieces of that advice?

RB: Well we say in the book and it is a three pronged approach, one of which is what individuals can do, which is your question, and I will get to it. The second is identifying things that could be done in their company. And the third is advocating for national policy changes.

Let us look at the individual. For example, the male stereotype which we all know about is who he is about:  He is a leader, he is confident, he is assertive, he is rational, he’s got all the . . . potential. But the female stereotype in contrast is quite negative:  Someone who is emotional, irrational, not very competent, very passive. So women have to confront that stereotype or else they are going to be defined by it. So one of the things we say is, don’t let yourself be boxed in by these stereotypes.  Concretely what does that mean?  It’s if you’re coming to give a talk into a new environment, have someone introduce your credentials out there. Don’t just say I’m Jane Smith and whatever. Say I’m Jane Smith, I just got my degree from Oxford University and I have just published these five papers – present your credentials up front. Well, some women have a hard time with that but I think that is just a question of practice and being able to talk about yourself so that . . . it is an empirical evidence. It is quite remarkable how men and women will change their perception of women based on some of that preliminary biographical information. So that is one thing we can do.  And it does make things harder; you have to do this extra bit of work.

The next thing I mentioned is the environment. You know something goes wrong and you get angry. Well if a man gets angry he is seen as a strong leader, he is taking charge, he has it figured out. But when a woman gets angry, she is emotional and out of control, it is all about her, so what can be done about that?

Women who can explain their anger, and say, you know, “I don’t get to see the report on time it was due and it was late” – somehow make it understandable -- then that stereotype that she is out of control and that she is irrational will dissipate. So women have to be aware of how they would likely proceed and undo it.

GR: Well let me get to the three questions at the end, first, what is the chapter of life that you are currently living?

RB: (Laughs) Bigger challenges. I have written many books and now I’m thinking of the next one and it is going to be larger project than I have taken up before and I think that these earlier books have prepared me for what I am about to take.

GR: Normally I don’t make a follow-up to these questions but now you’ve got me curious. Tell me just a little bit about that project.

RB: Okay, well this is just a little teaser. I’m interested in exploring the cultural and social phases of the fact that as a society we are living a lot longer. So the prediction right now is that fifty percent, one out of every two babies born in developed countries will live up to a hundred. And the other piece of that is the birth rate is declining in industrialized countries, so if you put those two things together it has big implications that I want to explore in this book for everything -- for education, for workplace, for marriage and family formation. So that’s a teaser.

GR:  Well back to the three questions, it sounds interesting. What’s your worst trait?

RB: I’m impatient. I am working on it but I have a tendency to be impatient but I don’t think it is altogether terrible but at the same time it is not something that I am universally happy with.

GR: And finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

RB: Well, I’ve been always intrigued about the disconnection and disparity between what we have in our country’s stereotyped ideas about gender and what the empirical research says. And what surprised me is how consistently the stereotypes are wrong. It is really quite remarkable because that has been continuously interesting because, in spite of all the data that has been collected, the myth keeps on going. It is still thought to be the case that women are less assertive and more caring and are more nurturing, when there is no data in any of that stuff and I find that very intriguing.

GR: That was Rosalind Barnett, her new book is “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men, and Our Economy.” Rosalind, thanks so much for talking with me.

RB: Well thank you for having me.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher, join me again next week on WRVO Public Media for more conversation on the public interest. You can also follow us on twitter @campbellconvos