Today we live in a world where women make up almost 5 out of 10 workers, and in the next decade, 1 billion more women will join the work force (Booze & Co.).

Women are outstripping men in earning college degrees and pursuing graduate education in the U.S. (U.S. Dept of Commerce).

In 1979, women only owned 5% of businesses, whereas today they constitute 35% of entrepreneurs (Overcoming the Gender Gap).

“The federal government has set a goal of making 5% of its purchases from women-owned businesses,” but has failed – adding 5% of purchases would translate into $4 billion per year going to women-owned businesses (Booz & Co.)

Women’s participation in the labor force is 68%, almost catching up to men’s 80% as of June 2012 (The Global Gender Gap Report).

In 1981, 1 out of 10 single mothers were home buyers.  Today, 1 out of 5 single mothers represent home owners – twice the rate of single men (NPR).

Women earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar (IWPR).

Even though women have a slightly lower unemployment rate than men (7.4% women, 7.8% men), women comprise 59% of low-wage working jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Even more so, women hold nearly half of professional and managerial positions (Cataylst).  However, women represent a mere 16% of board seats at Fortune 500 Companies, and only 14% of executive office positions (Catalyst).

Furthermore, in both 2010 and 2011, less than 1/5 of companies had boards with 25% or more women directors, and about one-tenth had no women at all (Catalyst).

If female employment levels were equal to men in the United States, overall GDP would raise 5% (Booze & Co.).

The barriers that prevent women from achieving equality in terms of respect, earnings, and representation in the work place is known as the GLASS CEILING.  Public policies, personal decisions, and economic structures are continuously reshaping women’s impact on society, and thus, determine the success of women to maximize their full potential.

What are the challenges preventing the U.S. from utilizing one of our greatest, untapped resources?


Barriers

According to the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission  “…shattering the glass ceiling both serves our national values and makes our business stronger.”  The commission also found three levels of barriers that must be eliminated for women and minorities to gain access to executive suites.

The first wave of barriers are external, societal barriers.  First, the “supply barrier” refers to the “lack of qualified women and minorities because of inequities in the nation’s educational system” (Glass Ceiling Commission Report).  The report argues that even though corporations cannot do anything to reform the nation’s schools, they can advocate  for school programs and initiatives such as school-to-work, internships, and scholarships to promote women and minority participation and opportunities.  The second barrier they describe is the “difference barrier”.  This barrier refers to “stereotypes, prejudices, and biases that individuals harbor about cultural, gender, or racial differences.”  The report states that of all the barriers to advance women and minorities in corporations, prejudice tops the list.

The second wave of barriers concerns internal business obstacles.  This means that there is a stark difference in what corporate leadership wants or thinks is happening and what is actually happening.  For example, a 2010 survey found that many people did not see a problem with the status quo, which undermines efforts to address it.  After surveying 4,000 men and women, 56% of men believed women have made considerable progress in their company in the last decade, whereas only 39% of women believe that.  Similarly, the same survey found 49% of women believe gender bias exists in their companies versus only 28% of men.

Additionally, the Glass Ceiling Commission report found that many white males find they are “losing corporate game, losing control, and losing opportunity,” because they find women and minorities in management as “a direct threat to their own chances for advancement.”  Recruitment polices and corporate climate further illustrate examples of internal structural barriers and thus the persistence of the glass ceiling.  For example, the report states that many executives only hiring people like themselves culturally and ethnically because it would be risky to do otherwise, unless their company mandates an increase in minority hiring.

The commission argues the third wave of barriers that affect women’s progress in the work place are government barriers.  These include the lack of vigorous and consistent monitoring of law enforcement that would mitigate the glass ceiling, along with the weaknesses in the collection and dissemination of data.  According to Booz & Co., “In all areas of women’s economic empowerment, there is a need for detailed, frequently updated, and gender-disaggregated data—so interested parties can better understand the issues that women face and more effectively frame solutions.”

These three barriers outline the major obstacles women face in the work force, according to the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, which has sense dissolved.  In 2012, Booz & Co. also conducted a thorough report called “Empowering the Third Billion“, in where they evaluated the progress and status of women in a selection of countries.  The report gives each country a score given certain criteria: inputs, which include steps that the government and private sector  can take to improve the economic position of women, and outputs, which involve the observable social, economic, political aspects of women’s participation in the national economy.  The U.S., a country who had 157 million female workers in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau), ranked 30th overall and was part of the cluster of countries marked “On the Path to Success”.  Booz & Co. attributes this ranking to the lack of access to child care and family-friendly work places, which apply to both low-income women and the small percentage of executive women in the corner office.


Suggestions

To date, the United States is the only country in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) that does not provide income support during maternity or paternal leave (OECD).  Furthermore, 40% of all private-sector workers don’t have any paid sick days (National Partnership for Women and Families).  Mandatory government laws that offer pay for maternity leave and/or more paid sick days would drastically help low-wage workers.  Even though low-wage women have less access to benefits and less autonomy than women in professional and managerial positions, in both cases, company policies that encourage more pride, appreciation, and flexibility in women’s day-to-day work, would be more likely to succeed.  Booz & Co. also suggests the importance of open dialogue about balancing personal and professional goals.

Women in professional or management positions are also facing a challenge they  call “gender fatigue” (Women on Boards).  With limited access to senior-levels and expanding workweeks, middle-management women and above are question the sacrifices they must make in family life are worth it.  Booz & Co. implores if companies realize the benefit of women talent investments, formal policies and programs are needed to “help women stay in the game and maintain a career path through life’s many phases”.  These policies could include tele-commuting, flex-time, and “on-ramp” and “off-ramp” career paths that enable high qualified women to take time off for their families without losing the opportunity for promotion or greater responsibility.  Furthermore, mentors, sponsors, or leaders who can model these sorts of policies and non-traditional career paths would foster greater visibility and acceptance of a more flexible work environment.  Businesses and organizations who facilitate mentorship programs offer support to women to ensure they are successful.  For example, 56% of women entrepreneurs were motivated by others who had started their own businesses (The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur).


Let’s Break Glass: The Need for Change

The overall approach the U.S. has taken to discuss women seniority is much less controversial than Europe, who uses board quotas.  The U.S. focuses on individual female achievement, via raising awareness, developing networks of women directors to provide information and assistance, collecting data, using proxy voting to change company policies, and recommending diversity requirements for companies to adopt (Overcoming the Gender Gap).  While the U.S. approach has generated less controversy, the quota system in Europe has seen a greater immediate impact of women directors in C-level positions (Booz & Co.).  True change, for all workers, must come from within work culture.  Companies need to praise non-conventional ways of working, without threatening career progression.  In the private sector, government, and entrepreneurial front, the U.S. work place needs to recognize the potential talent investment women bring to the table by offering support of a women’s family responsibilities  receiving equal opportunities for advancement, earnings, and growth as their male counterparts.

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