We Did It! Not So Fast.

“We Did It!” announced the Economist on its cover recently, and continued, “What happens when women are over half the workforce?” The magazine went on and flatly declared: “The rich world’s quiet revolution: women are gradually taking over the workplace.”

We did?

I tell you what would happen if women really were half of the workforce: Even more women would be underpaid and even more employers would save a buck. Maybe that’s the trend post-Great Recession: Lay off the higher-paid men and hire us. And that, sadly, includes the communications industry and its giant corporations.

If other industries serve as an example, rampant pay inequality in media is a reality. Reuters reported in October 2008 that the year before, “female chief executives earned just 58% of what their male counterparts did, and their compensation packages were slashed three times as much as their male peers.” Granted, most women CEOs work in smaller companies. But also that in itself is telling.

People don’t like to talk about their salaries, and especially women don’t feel comfortable haggling over compensation (like most men do) before accepting a new position. According to a PINK Magazine study, women don’t ask for pay rises nearly as often as men. Consequently, many women start off on a lower pay level. And this inequality stays with them until they reach the top. Regardless, of the 2,000 world’s top performing companies, 1.5% of the CEOs are women. And in media, name one woman who has clawed herself to the top of a media empire and become a Murdoch in a pantsuit.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center published a study in 2002: “The Glass Ceiling in the Executive Suite.” Guess what they found? The number of executive women in the major communication and entertainment conglomerates is barely in the teens. A year later, a second study revealed that the glass ceiling in media had barely budged. And with it, the prevalence of lower paychecks continued. “Women made no progress in the past year,” the report concluded. That was in 2003. And in 2009? Women in the United States in full-time positions still make only 78 cents on the dollar compared to the typical male worker — more than 45 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963.

According to the Pew Research Center, 49% of Americans believe that “women who try to rise to the top [where they would get paid more] get held back by the ‘old-boy network’.” Women “aren’t supposed to be aggressive and self-promoting, even though it’s often rewarded,” writes Kathleen Deveny in Newsweek (Nov. 30, 2009). She declares that “when women are finally sufficiently represented in the executive suite, we will stop viewing them as proxies for their entire gender — superior or not.” But the magazine also predicted in the same issue that “working women are poised to become the biggest economic engine the world has ever known.” Apparently while clutching their lower paychecks with a smile.

Even so, Gail Evans, who retired from CNN in 2001 as the network’s first female executive vice president, told me she dislikes the term “glass ceiling” because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It’s about a general power shift that hasn’t happened yet,” says Evans. “Women need to learn how to play the game. We all buy into the same stereotypes: Women take care — and men take charge. Women have to start supporting each other more. Their success is connected. Women think it’s all about ‘I can do it.’ They think that ‘if I try hard, it’ll change.’ We have to go from ‘I can do it,’ which gives isolated success, to ‘we can do it.’ ”

So, no, we haven’t done it — yet. “Equal rights for the sexes will be achieved when mediocre women occupy high positions,” the French writer and feminist Françoise Giroud (1916-2003) once said. Maybe she was on to something.

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Tekla Szymanski

Tekla is a New-York based independent content strategist and front-end web developer, a multilingual journalist, writer and editor (both offline and online).

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