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Defining Progress For Women (And Everyone Else)

In a recent New York Times opinion column, Joanne Lipman, former deputy managing editor at The Wall Street Journal and founding editor of Portfolio magazine, tells us women’s progress in the workplace has come to a screeching halt and attitudes “have taken a giant leap backward.”

This startled me. I thought things were going pretty well.

Lipman cites familiar statistics. Women earn just 77 cents for each dollar earned by a man, only 13 cents more than in 1983. At law firms, women make up nearly half of associates, but only 18 percent of partners. Only 15 Fortune 500 companies are run by women.

But, while Lipman refers to the “truly tragic wardrobe choices” women made in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they focused on “out-machoing the men,” her point of view seems to me to be equally retro.

Does gender equality mean having the same options, or the same outcomes? Lipman focuses on outcomes. This, however, presumes that, given the same opportunities, women and men make the same choices in the same proportions, which simply does not reflect the world in which we live. Even Lipman acknowledges this, though she disregards it.

Lipman lambastes women for not asserting themselves in the workplace the way men do. “In my time as an editor, many, many men have come through my door asking for a raise or demanding a promotion,” she says, before asking, “Guess how many women have ever asked me for a promotion?” Her answer: “Exactly... zero.” This, she concludes—without citing any evidence—is because women are afraid to take risks.

Lipman does not say how many of the men got the promotions and raises they sought from her. I suspect the answer is “not many.” If she had wanted to hand out those benefits, she would have done it on her own. The women who did not bother to ask for things their boss would not give them may simply have been more sensible than their male co-workers.

Lipman complains about the negative portrayal of women in the media, and yet, her brand of outdated feminism feeds directly into that portrayal. Instead of seeing women as having different priorities from men, leading them to make different choices, she chooses to see women as weak.

I don’t see women as weak. Anyone who has ever been in a delivery room knows women are not weak. Men never experience pregnancy and childbirth, while most women do. This difference in experience, among others, might explain why women and men tend to make different selections even when presented with the same menu of choices in life.

According to Lipman, “women haven’t come nearly as far as we would have predicted 25 years ago.” She apparently expected 50 percent of partners in law firms and 50 percent of Fortune 500 C.E.O.s to be women by this time. I am not sure who she is speaking for when she uses the word “we,” but I was around back then, and I don’t think most people expected this. How could they? We did not even have the term “family leave” 25 years ago. We had maternity leaves, and mothers took them, not fathers.

We have very flexible work arrangements at my company. Employees who have babies tell me when they are ready to come back to work, and they tell me if they want to work a reduced schedule. So far, I have always been able to accommodate their wishes.

These arrangements are open to men and women. How many men have asked to work reduced hours in exchange for reduced pay? Thus far, exactly ... zero. Both sexes take occasional days off, or shorten their workday now and then, to deal with family matters. But only women have been willing to trade away significant dollars and slow the progression of their careers (because reduced work hours means less experience gained each year) in exchange for a greater number of days at home.

Citing women’s lower representation among high wage-earners and power-wielders assumes that these are the only things that matter. If there aren’t as many women as men in those fields, then women must be failing, Lipman and others tell us. But why do we not see studies that show that men witness their children’s first steps less frequently, sit down with their families less often to satisfying meals that they have cooked, or take aged parents to the doctor less often?

We certainly have not reached a nirvana of equality. Women’s health issues still receive inadequate attention from the medical and health insurance communities, and from some employers. I suspect many workplaces are less accommodating of family needs than we are at Palisades Hudson, and that burden falls disproportionately on women. And I know there are still old-boy networks and glass ceilings, even if they are not as blatant as they once were.

The effects of past discrimination linger, as well. Many women who might now be in positions of power had their careers set back and their trajectories lowered decades ago. This helps to account for the gender discrepancy in higher-level positions today, since most people who fill those positions got their start when women were more apt to be treated unfairly.

Lipman acknowledges, but glosses over, the crucial reality that “Women define success differently; for some it may be a career, for others the ability to stay home with children.” It seems to me that this is the entire point. Freedom and obligation are not the same thing. As I saw it, the women’s movement was about giving women the freedom to do what men can do and vice-versa. It was not about forcing anyone to do it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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