Women in the workplace – we’ve still got it wrong

I’ve never taken the time to look into why feminism is described in waves: second wave, third wave… not sure which wave we’re on now… but the analogy seems to be apropos, concerning its presence in our daily lives. One day it’s here, the next day it’s not.

Take Gloria Steinem and the 1960’s and 70’s in general. You couldn’t even look at a pair of bell bottoms without discussing the ins and outs of who wore the pants in the family. These days, feminism is a bit more subtle, with people like Rebecca Walker and Elisabeth Badinter creeping into the picture, causing a minor ruckus, before disappearing for another five years.

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But lately, feminism — particularly the issue of women in the workplace — has been coming out from behind the curtains in more conspicuous ways. Maybe the journalists don’t even realize they’re running comparable stories, but it’s happening: from America to England to France, people are once again talking about where women fit into the professional picture.

In a May 8th issue of The Economist, we learn that a new French law will force the country’s top companies to name a certain proportion of women among their top executives. With the goal of 40% by 2016, France has a long way to go, where women currently hold only 11% of about 580 board seats at the 40 largest firms. And then we learn that the French are making a mockery of this law.

Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French president Jacques, has been nominated to the board of LVMH with the following credentials, according to the company: “She was female and as a first lady she supported fashion and regularly attended catwalk shows.” Well, that sure sounds like a match to me.

The Economist reports that bosses are taking the new law so lightly that many executives are planning to nominate their wives or girlfriends – women with little relevant experience and a pretty face, who will sit down and shut up and continue to let men take the reins. The magazine writes: “One boss asked a headhunter for photographs of candidates and said he would treat looks as his first criterion, ahead of industry experience.”

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What is so wholly maddening is the way the French press has attended to this issue, or not attended to it, as the case may be. Months ago, the new law was mentioned in a five-line blurb and then never again. Then, in a May 29th issue of Le Monde, we learn that Claude Chirac, the 47 year-old daughter of the former president, has resigned from her position as director of communication at Francois-Henri Pinault, PPR, without knowing why — but that mom Bernadette has (as we now know) accepted the position of administrator for LVMH. No details are given as to how or why Bernadette qualified for this position, nor what exactly she will do for the company.

Perhaps this situation is evidence of French culture, which is taught from a young age not to question things. From elementary school through university, young people sit in filled Education Nationale classrooms worrying more about which colored pen they should use while taking notes than whether to challenge the teacher.

Or it could be France’s male-dominated culture. Men still outweigh women in the workplace and while paternity-leave does abound (unlike in America), men are the breadwinners in most families.

Now, it’s all well and good to bash the other team but unfortunately feminism is one area where America can’t play the “We’re the best in the world” card. Women held 13.5% of top positions in Fortune 50o companies in 2009, just a few measly percentage points over the Frogs. And even those who are there are not getting the respect they deserve.

In Time magazine’s May 24, 2010 edition, “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street” piece examines the female power players in the U.S financial and political systems who are picking up the pieces of the recent Wall Street crisis – a crisis largely created by men. Sheila Bair, of the FDIC, became a notorious whistleblower on the economic downturn back in 2007, when she noticed that American banks were in trouble. When she tried to point out the issues, the response was hostile: “They were shocked and horrified,” she said. By the end of 2008, Bair was proven right. Twenty-five banks became insolvent and were taken over by the FDIC.

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At a recent event to celebrate women’s role in finance, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made reference to a headline he had read that said, “What if Women Ran Wall Street?” He responded to the crowd with a low-brow joke: “Now, that’s an excellent question, but it’s kind of a low bar… how, might you ask, could women not have done better?”

In effect, the men have mucked up Wall Street so thoroughly that only a woman can clean it up. After all, that’s what women do best, isn’t it? Cleaning? The Mother-Son analogy couldn’t be more poignant than in this very moment. Whether in a romantic or family relationship, women have earned the heartwarming stereotype of spending their lives tidying up men’s messes. And women often fall right in line with this grim picture, doing just that.

As the few final months of 2010 fleet away and we embark on a new decade, I’m hoping women in the workplace won’t be just another newspaper headline we ponder for a few days before chucking it into the bin. Like race and sexual orientation debates, feminism is something that needs to be discussed openly and often if we’re ever going to get out of the woods. So I don’t know about you, but I’m grabbing my surf board now so I’m sure to be ready when the next wave of feminism happens to sweep in.

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3 responses to “Women in the workplace – we’ve still got it wrong

  1. Dennis Debe

    I think the wave metaphor is appropriate when applied to sexism, except that the valleys seem to be so much broader than any of the crests! Much of the progress made in the 60’s & 70’s seems to have gone by the wayside-the continued inequality in pay, the blatant sexism rampant in television commercials, the lack of equal representation in government, executive position inequality the article mentions, and the list goes on and on. And a basic concept is that our society rewards and, in turn, seems to value the masculine characteristics of power over authority, competition over cooperation, winning or “defeating” opposition over “making things better”. The mental “war-like” independent male brain behavior is favored over the interdependent/cooperative feminine brain behavior that might be more appropriate for the survival and betterment of our current world. I would venture to say (without any proof), that most of the females who succeed in our male-dominated society are those who would score particularly high on male-trait scales as, culturally, we have yet to embrace feminine traits as positive characteristics, but instead view them as “soft spots” or weaknesses. Is there progress? Yes. But the recoil, or reactionary aspect seems to be stronger and louder.

  2. Children ask about 100 questions
    a day. An adult barely 10.
    Schools mostly kill creativity.
    Here is an experiment
    you can try for yourself (devised
    by Tim Brown): ask children to
    draw a portrait of you in
    no more than 30 seconds. Now
    ask them to show you their
    drawings. Repeat the same
    experiment with a group of
    friends (or total strangers).
    Compare the reactions and
    comments of both of these
    groups when they show you
    their drawings. I promise
    you it should be interesting.
    Really like your writing style.
    Very lively. Did you read
    “On Writing” by Stephen King?

    More to say about feminism but
    it’s hard to type in with a
    blackberry!

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