"It Is Mostly Women's Fault:" Helpful And Unhelpful Advice For Women At Work

The recession could be an opportunity to redesign the landscape of American work in a way that's fairer to both men and women. Unfortunately, some people want to stick with the status quo.

In a Washington Post article thick with both historical references and wonky policy recommendations, Dorothy Sue Cobble writes that women played a key role in the labor reform of the New Deal, and that they are placed to do so again. "New Deal feminists," she says, and those who took up their work-focused advocacy, spearheaded the Equal Pay Act and pushed through a child-care expenses tax reduction. They also successfully campaigned to expand health insurance. Now, says Cobble, feminists could take a cue from their forebears and focus their efforts on greater labor justice across class and gender. She writes,

We need a movement to raise income, to close the gender leisure gap as well as the gender pay gap — still stuck at 23 percent — to redesign careers for modern families and to expand health coverage. [...] But for the movement to grow, it will need to take another page from New Deal feminism: join with others concerned with economic justice and workplace transformation and pay attention to updating and strengthening labor laws. With the rise of managerial, supervisory and contingent work, the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act, which set up a minimum wage] and the National Labor Relations Act barely cover half of the private-sector labor force. At the same time, programs such as the child tax credit and support for early education should be extended to the middle class. As New Deal feminists knew, any women's movement that wants to remain relevant needs to advocate for the majority of women — waitress moms as well as soccer moms, corporate executives as well as the immigrant women who clean their homes and care for their children.

Cobble's argument has some troubling elements — she seems to think feminists should stop paying so much attention to abortion because "it is painfully clear that consensus in this country on the issue of abortion rights is impossible at this moment." But she's made one of the most specific and convincing cases yet for the ever-more-urgent need to reform the American workplace. And she points out that such reform should be a broad-based, including not only equal pay and improved health insurance but also flexible hours and protections for all types of jobs.

In fact, the new face of labor reform needs to be about more than labor. The recession has shown that the old model in which employees relied on companies for their health insurance and retirement benefits, and in return often signed away their family lives, doesn't really work anymore. Maybe it never did. What we need now are social programs that decouple a person's basic security from the vagaries of the job market, and a job market that takes into account the need for a balanced life. Women, who both pay more in health care expenses and spend more time caring for family members, are well-placed to advocate for both these goals. And Cobble isn't the only one chronicling their role in labor reform throughout history — David Woolner has a piece on The Huffington Post about women and workplace issues from Eleanor Roosevelt to now — and NOW.

Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo. Shaun Rein has a Forbes article titled "Why Men Don't Promote Women More," and bearing the linkbaity subhead, "Because women aren't pushy enough." He writes,

In my career, I have tended to promote more men than women. I have even generally given men higher salaries. Why? Am I sexist? Do men do a better job? The answer is a resounding no to both.

Actually, it is mostly women's fault. They simply don't ask for raises or promotions as often as men do.

Women, he says, are afraid "they could be fired if they appeared too pushy," but they just need to follow his simple tips to get ahead. One of these, of course, is not dressing too sexy. The other is to ask for a raise or promotion. His pointers for doing the latter aren't bad ones, but the reality is that women are often perceived as pushy where men would be seen as assertive. And they can face negative consequences for this perception. Is part of the answer for all women to be more assertive so that no one stands out? Maybe — but another is for people like Rein, business writers with lots of powerful readers, to examine why women might not ask for promotions rather than just telling them to do so.

Rein writes that many men "said they'd prefer a female boss, because of the greater likelihood she'd understand the need for work-life balance." And having more women in positions of power would be a great step towards the kind of "New Deal feminism" Cobble's talking about. But that's not going to happen as long as male bosses sit back and wait for women to come to them — something that's really just as passive as the behavior Rein accuses female employees of. Part of being a great boss is spotting talent throughout your organization, not just when it's yelling in your face. One day maybe women will yell as loud as men. But until that happens, male and female supervisors can advance the cause of New Deal feminism by actively looking for outstanding women, and by creating the kind of work environment where these women can shine.

It's Time For New Deal Feminism [Washington Post]
Why Men Don't Promote Women More [Forbes]