Mama Grizzlies Bear Down on Senate

Last Updated Oct 1, 2010 7:23 AM EDT

Things must have been fun at the U.S. Joint Economic Committee earlier this week. Formidable authorities faced off about the likely effects of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which President Obama has been urging the Senate to pass. (It's already through the House.)
Evidence for the passing the act was presented by Ilene Lang, CEO of Catalyst, a think tank rightly known for setting a high standard for holding employers accountable for moving women into top executive and board positions. (Catalyst research is thorough; I once heard its process termed "corporate proctology.") Let's back quickly out of that analogy to point out that conveniently, the Government Accountability Office just released a raft of statistics indicating that women are stuck, at best, on their way to top positions. In her testimony Tuesday, Lang reinforced that with Catalyst evidence.
  • Women accounted for 2.6% of Fortune 500 CEO's in late September, down from 3% at the end of 2009
  • Women have plateaued at about 13.5% of corporate officers
  • Women have plateaued at about 6.3% of the highest earners at Fortune 500 companies
  • Women's starting salaries averages $4,600 less than men, even after controlling for job level
  • Women's subsequent salary growth is lower than men's - even when career aspirations and parenthood status is factored in
Convinced? I am. There's a problem out there. It's subtle and it persists despite many well-intentioned people who genuinely believe that they are making fair, equitable decisions. Why? Here's why: Few company leaders examine internal patterns of compensation and advancement. They think things are fine because they're good people with good intentions. That may be, but if that's so, why do their individual decisions add up to a bad result? Because we don't always do what we intend to do. In the end, most companies don't hold themselves accountable for the outcomes of their equity practices. And because they don't, the feds will.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Hudson Institute thinks differently. She represented the view that women are doing just fine, better than they ever have, and that requiring federal contractors and employers to prove that they are proactively seeking to advance women is patronizing. She made some good points, such as the fact that the wage gap is dramatically wider for working mothers. Disappointingly, she trotted out the frayed argument that women sideline themselves from advancement and higher pay because they'd rather be home with the kids.

News flash, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth: most women would rather spend more time with their kids. But they can't: they're working. And if they're working, they ought to at least have the thin comfort that they'll get every shot possible at making more money and more of their careers. At the hearing, Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, showed that mothers earn 60 cents to a father's dollar.

Women might have tolerated lower pay and fewer promotions when their incomes were supplemental. Now their incomes are essential for the wellbeing of their families. Not for nothing does Sarah Palin keep invoking the mama grizzly bear. I'm starting to look forward to the debate on the Senate floor about the Paycheck Fairness Act. Are they really going to take on a rising army of grizzlies?

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor rchall.