By Eli Cahan, Editorial Board Member
Published October 22, 2012
On Monday, the New York Times published an article by Stephanie Coontz titled “The Myth of Male Decline.” It addresses the pervasiveness of women in the workplace since the beginning of the feminist movement and discusses whether anything has truly changed. Coontz contends that the “patriarchal dividend,” or the socio-economic privileging of men, hasn't disappeared from the business world. While employment trends for women have curved upward in recent years, they haven't evened out, nor will they.
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Women started at such a disadvantage that trending doesn’t define positioning. Coontz also observes the phenomenon of women at the top gradually sacrificing their femininity for the more pertinent attributes of a man. In this context, social values are defining the roles of women in our society.
At Cornell, researchers submitted fake résumés in response to job postings. All factors were constant in the résumés but one: parental status. They found that mothers received far fewer callbacks and, when hired, their salaries were worth $11,000 less than non-parents without room for promotion. Additionally, mothers with children received half as many callbacks as those without children.
What does this say about the values of the workplace? On one hand, it’s a matter of naive assumption — the misconception that working mothers will inevitably prioritize family over the work. On the other hand, there’s the assertion that mothers ought to spend more time with their kids than at work and thus aren’t ideal for the ruthless business world. The problem with the latter is that it doesn’t give women options — who is a recruiter to make that decision for a grown woman?
The interesting part about all of this is the gender bias of certain jobs — four of every five teachers and social workers are women. This points to the stereotype that the talents of women lie in nurturing, development and support. These talents are often given no credence in the cutthroat environment of a corporation.
However, I’d argue the other way. According to the classical “window-mirror” allegory of leadership, true leaders “look out the window” when giving credit and “look in the mirror” when delegating responsibility. That is to say, while they’re accountable for the errors of the organization, they should be careful not to take credit for its successes, which should go to those within the company. Sounds like a mother’s role to me. If you’ve ever been on a plane you know what I’m talking about. The baby who cries the entire flight is the product of poor parenting and lack of attention. The baby who plays in the rows and smiles when she travels is a charming example of maturity and precociousness.
The point of all of this lies in “femininity” itself. Coontz says the issue pertains to mothers identifying too openly with the existential idea of “woman,” rather than as unique individual women who also mother. Motherhood does have applications in the workplace — I would personally love it if every time I called HR or customer service, my mom answered the phone. I’d also love it if my boss cared for her subordinates even remotely as much as a mother loves her kids.
The issue boils down to the stigma of stereotypical “male vs. female” qualities. Women who don’t make it home for dinner are frowned upon. Men who get home early from work to make that dinner are disgraced.
In true Darwinian biological terms, Dad should weather the storm of the outside world to bring home the goods, while Mom should sit in the nest with the kids and keep them warm.
Well, what if Mom could nest somewhere else, say, in the office? And what if she could retain the qualities that make her “Mom” and not the ones that make her “Boss”? Perhaps if everyone in the workplace warmed up to one another, they might cooperate, set aside their differences and operate as a family unit. Think about that — the office family. Certainly in The Office there’s not a speck of family anywhere; good thing too, otherwise we might not have a TV show worth watching. But the average workplace shouldn’t resemble a TV show.
We need to embrace the qualities of women that make them women and the qualities of mothers that make them mothers. It’s not appropriate for every manager to resemble Steve McQueen or Christopher Reeve. It might, in fact, do us well to consider more Meryl Streeps or Helen Mirrens for the helm.
Eli Cahan is a Business sophomore.