Lady Business: Women are 60 Percent of Breadwinners, But Still Opting Out of High-Paying Work. Why?

Wall Street Journal Graphic illustrating the differences between the CEOs who say they prioritize gender equality and their actions


Almost a few years ago now, I read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I remember being impressed by their nobility and thinking about ways that I could personally become a better advocate for women around the world to make the most of their opportunities.

And then I realized that I had invested in myself and my education by making huge personal risks and taking out really expensive student loans that it seems I will be paying off until I retire (if I ever retire).

I went to Emma Willard, an all-girls high school, then a Seven Sisters college, Vassar, with the help and prodding of a few powerful mentors. Learning in realms shaped by the idea that women had powerful voices and were significant, not just in relation to men, but all by themselves, should not have been a novel concept to me as a young woman, but it was.

That was key to framing the way I thought about business and money. Learning to speak up, to be assertive about my goals, and to forge ahead, disregarding perceptions that I was a bitch, a mean girl, or whatever else because I had ambition and talent—all of that came from learning in the context of women-dominated spaces.

On International Women’s Day in March, Think Progress posted a blog about “Women’s Impact on the Economy, By the Numbers.” It both irritated and fascinated me, as numbers are wont to do.

It told the story of 66 million American women in the current workforce, earning 77 cents to every dollar made by a man. 60 percent of women are the primary or co-breadwinner in their households. Women are fifty percent of the college-educated population. In other words, even if the amount of money we make doesn’t reflect it, like women around the world, we hold up half the sky.

Most people operate from the perspective that it’s a bad thing that women aren’t more like men. Should we be trying for the jobs that men want? Do we need to be better at business the way its structured, or does business need to be better at courting us for our skills? These numbers always prompt those questions for me.

It’s great that we know more about the business lives of women and celebrate them for the progress they’ve made. But what is it about corporate culture that keeps it unfriendly to women? And why haven’t women achieved more in business? There are 12 Fortune 500 CEOs. That’s 12 who weren’t there three decades ago, but that’s still a pretty low number. In the words of Sue Shellenbarger in a special “Women in the Economy: An Executive Task Force” report published in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, “You would think the problem would be solved by now…So why are we still talking about this?”

My guess jibes with data that the Wall Street Journal published.

Entry-level and low-level positions are teeming with women in businesses, and then they start “bleeding female talent,” according to Shellenbarger. Here’s a bit more:

Women land 53% of entry-level jobs and make it to “the belly of the pipeline” in large numbers, McKinsey found. But then, female presence falls off a cliff, to 35% at the director level, 24% among senior vice presidents and 19% in the C-suite. Google Inc. has trouble advancing women engineers, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president, people operations, said at the Journal conference. All employees are encouraged to nominate themselves for promotions, he says. Men jump at the chance, often before they are ready, and are often turned down. But women must be prodded: “For God’s sake, nominate yourself for promotions. You’re holding yourself back,” Mr. Bock says he tells female employees. Women who finally step up usually get the nod: “By the time a woman says she is ready, she was probably ready a year ago.”

Generally, it seems, women in business don’t have advocates. More than that, they have second-shift work as caregivers at home and they don’t want high-stress positions. Which is why they don’t make huge power plays to become managers or executives, which are higher paying jobs. I’d also like to think that more women are realizing that “life/work balance” might be a goal that no one every really achieves, so they are increasingly building businesses that work for them instead of taking staff jobs in “the pink ghetto.” But I’m not sure that’s the case. Do you think that women’s refusal to go for higher visibility positions in corporate spaces is part of what keeps American women in general from achieving equal pay? Have you thought about what a good solution might be?

Previously: You want food stamps to go with that advanced degree?, Introducing a Blog About Women, Money, and Business

by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is a Bronx native and the author of four books including two published last year, All City, a novella, and a memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in New York City.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

What is the motivation?

I think this statement rings true with so many women that I know: "They have second-shift work as caregivers at home and they don't want high-stress positions." - The question many ask is, "Do I want to be in high level positions, with more stress, less time for other valid pursuits, more politics, etc."

Many women don't seem to be as fulfilled by positions of power or money, so what is their incentive? Even if they don't have children or parents that require care, they may want their time and efforts going to art, community, education, hobbies, travel, etc. Corporate leadership isn't the center of their contribution to the world. This goes for politics as well. The pros don't always outweigh the cons for leadership. I'm in a C level position but only at a smaller company. Do I want to be a VP at Google? Hell no. Do I want to be the Governor of our state? Hell no. I want to do and experience so many other things that would be difficult or impossible with such huge leadership commitments.

Another mother for Hobbies

I agree that corporate leadership is not an appealing goal for me. I prefer to shut down at 5, make dinner for my family, and maybe have 90 minutes of an evening for gardening. As a designer/production manager, I revel in the work I churn out solo as well as the collaborative projects I'm able to manage, but I would hate to lose the hands-on activity to "manage" 24/7. Executives in my company are bogged down in meetings and business travel and glued to their iPhones all evening. So while I certainly would like to earn more money, to "advance" in my company would take me away from the actual substantive creative product that keeps me liking my job.

Absolutely agree

"Corporate leadership isn't the center of their contribution to the world. This goes for politics as well. The pros don't always outweigh the cons for leadership."

I totally agree with that. I think women are also excellent at being connectors in so many different kinds of relationships. So it makes sense, in some ways that we value experiences and our relationships over status positions and corporate structures. It's a conundrum, because so much about business could be improved by the presence and expansion of women's talents.

Perhaps an alternative reason

Perhaps an alternative reason that some women don't seek out high paying corporate jobs, even when they are highly skilled and efficient, may be because they do not agree with corporate culture and structures. Climbing a corporate ladder most often means immersing yourself in oppressive practices, both for yourself and for others.

The question shouldn't be: Why aren't women vying for high-profile position in the male dominated corporate world? BUT Why are we not all actively changing business structures and corporate capitalist economy that ultimate lead to unsatisfying jobs for everyone. Or, more to the point, why would women (or other marginalized groups) even want to participate in such practices? Why is this something to even shoot for?

In agreement with the

In agreement with the sentiment of the need for alternative workplace structure. I'm 42 and have had a variety of jobs. I don't know if i have a problem with authority or i'm just plain grossed out with the hierarchy of companies in general of course male lead/managed.
In the last 14 years I've worked housecleaning independently for many "working women" who are seemingly juggling the responsibilities of work and family. Although there are women who seem to be capable of this, I do not envy this lifestyle. The rewards of the paychecks do provide for necessities and the family vacations, lessons etc. but day to day life is hurried and moves at a faster pace than i tend to enjoy.
The pressure is also on for the children involved in this family dynamic to achieve like their parents, to shoot for external goals, popularity and the like. And so it continues, the drive for the paycheck, putting in the time. Taking care of my own home and family along with some others part time is my limit. The pressure still remains to make more money, to do my part though.
It's a reality for the families who could afford to hire me have had to let me go in the last few years due to their layoffs/cutbacks. I wonder from time to time how they're coping. Mothers have the extra, typically impossible expectations to keep a tidy, stylish home, look good and bring in money. These are genuine, caring people, not necessarily only money driven. The pressure seems to be to have the latest beautiful gadget or light fixture. I wonder what happens when they have to cut back? I have not experienced first hand the benefits of a higher paid lifestyle and imagine the loss of it to be harder to deal with than eating mac n cheese 2x a week like we are. I celebrate the fact we have laundry soap and toilet paper. Either way it's a pretty pathetic life in respect to the ways we depend on our current monetary system. I don't want to be a part of this greed driven system yet we need to eat. I've heard things are changing soon....

I think that's definitely true

The easiest way to explain why we aren't all actively changing business structures -- or to at least offer a theory -- is that patriarchy was not created and reinforced during a short period of time, so as it continues to change (and potentially peter out?)it might take awhile for it to die a slow, necessary death in the West.

I am not optimistic it will happen in my lifetime. I think it became something to shoot for because all of the self-help, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps authors and figures in biz history tend to be men...Dale Carnegie, Upton Sinclair, etc.

Opting Out

The culture of the company where I worked touted corporate responsibility and made a show of inclusivity and acceptance, while just below the surface there was an insidious chauvinism which deeply influenced the corporate decision making by the managers and directors. I was hired as support staff but was quickly promoted to a position here I managed the online services in the US. When the change in my role went unrecognized, I consulted with my direct manager about a raise, and asked for an official recognition of my promotion. She said I could have new business cards made with my new title on them. When I continued to bring in more clients and manage more projects, I again asked her about a raise. She told me that I should "expect repercussions" if I continued to ask for more money.

The point of the anecdote is this: often women don't ask for more because they understand that there can be unspoken consequences (because a woman asking for a raise is demanding, troublesome. A man asking for one is expected).

N.B. My manager was right. There were repercussions to my insistence that I be paid commensurate with my new role. When I lobbied enough people who had influence over salary decision-making, and got my raise, the director finally took notice of me, in a bad way. I eventually resigned. Just before I did, my manager said to me that I should try being like "Mary" and "Jane" (other women on the team) in my influencing style. Code words for "act more like a woman".

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