When George W. Bush proclaimed Women’s Equality Day last August, he urged diligence “as we work to ensure the rights of all our citizens.” But even as Bush signed that declaration, he and his allies in Congress were working to ensure that the federal agencies charged with monitoring job discrimination against women would be less able to do the job.
The current budget leaves the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with an $18 million shortfall, which could lead to staff furloughs. Next year’s budget, as proposed by Bush, would cut enforcement spending by another 3 percent. As it is, the number of discrimination cases in which EEOC found reasonable cause dropped in the last fiscal year, even as the number of complaints hit a seven-year high.
Elsewhere on the labor front, Bush is undermining anti-bias programs Bill Clinton put in place. The Equal Opportunity Survey, created in 2000, “was the most significant gain for women in the history of affirmative action,” says Melissa Josephs, senior policy associate at Women Employed. This survey required companies that hold federal contracts to submit wage and hiring data by sex and race. Each year, half of those 100,000 businesses would be monitored by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. But last year, OFCCP sent out only 10,000 surveys. At the current rate, a federal contractor can expect to be scrutinized once a decade instead of every two years.
The Office of Personnel Management, which deals with federal hiring, is now being run by Kay Coles James, a black woman who staunchly opposes affirmative action. This is not an insignificant appointment, since the U.S. government is the nation’s largest employer. Meanwhile, Bush has stopped the Office of Management and Budget from releasing a Clinton-era report called “Equal Pay Matters.” According to Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat, Iowa), the report concludes that the wage gap between male and female workers “is real [and] it’s caused in large part by discrimination.”
These actions are part of a concerted effort by Bush & Co. to slow the push for workplace equity. But because this rollback is occurring under the radar, the media have barely noticed it. Instead, the big story about women is the one dictated by the White House. It’s a carefully cultivated myth of progress.
“Gap Between Pay for Men and Women Smallest on Record,” read a front-page headline in The New York Times last month. This good news came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which had released data showing that women now earn 77.5 percent of what men do, reversing an eight-year trend. But activists are not impressed. “It’s only a few cents more,” notes Martha Burk, who chairs the National Council of Women’s Organizations. “I don’t think that means we’re on the way to real equity.” Still, those stats tell a happy tale—until you examine them closely.
“Women are doing better because men are doing worse,” says Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. As manufacturing jobs disappear, many men who once held them are settling for lower wages in the service industries. There, they earn the same meager pay that women do. One reason the wage gap is closing is that women do better in a recession, if only because so many of them work as teachers, clerks, or health care providers. These professions are less subject to economic jolts and more likely to be unionized. Union members earn more money, and women now make up 42 percent of that fortunate category.
“Because of the labor movement and the women’s movement, both sexes walk in the door with basically the same salary,” says Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (Democrat, Manhattan). “If you’re going to be canning tomato juice, it’s a little gross to say, ‘This woman standing right next to that man, we’re going to pay her less.’ But five years out, the pay gap starts growing, and once you get into management, it rises dramatically. In some fields, women have lost as much as 18 cents on the dollar.”
The modest wage gains women have made in low-level jobs aren’t reflected at the executive level. One explanation is that women are typically placed in the lower rungs of management. They are much more likely to deal with public relations or personnel than to make major profit-and-loss decisions. As a rule, the more important (and lucrative) a job, the more probable that a man will hold it.
The good news is that many more women are starting their own businesses. But only 4 percent of the billions spent by Fortune 500 companies go to these female-run firms, according to The Wall Street Journal. When it comes to getting a corner office at a large corporation, women don’t do much better. The bigger the business, the less likely that it will have a woman at the helm. USA Today reports that 393 companies in the Fortune 500 have no women among their top five executives. That’s actually a small improvement, according to a survey by Catalyst, an organization that tracks women’s advancement in business. But even in this slightly brighter climate, women of color hold only 1.6 percent of top corporate jobs.
Not that white women have their pick of professions. The top girls are concentrated in certain trades, such as insurance, tobacco, beverages, and a field Catalyst calls “temporary help.” High-power firms in petroleum (where the president’s men come from), computers, and brokerage are much tougher for women to crack. The richest corporations in America—Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, General Motors, and Ford—are essentially male bastions. But to a great extent, so are universities, where, as Yale biologist Joan A. Steitz put it, “a woman is expected to be twice as good for half as much.”
You’d think the entertainment industry would welcome both sexes, but stereotypes limit the jobs women get. Only four of last year’s 100 top-grossing films were directed by women, and only one of those movies had a female cinematographer. You’re as likely to find a female record producer as you are to find a woman behind the camera. Some corporations, such as AOL Time Warner, have an impressive front-office hiring record. But a liberal image is no guarantee that a company will be an equal-opportunity employer when it comes to management.
Nor does a hip image mean female executives. Apple has only one, Levi Strauss none. Think about that the next time you buy jeans.
If it’s tempting to believe women are doing just fine, perhaps that’s because so many guys hold to this idea. Only 8 percent of men think women are paid less for doing the same work that they do, according to Catalyst. A whopping 51 percent of women disagree. This perceptual gender gap is crucial when you consider that most people who hire and promote are men. If they don’t see the problem, how can it be solved?
The answer is government. Monitoring makes the truth more evident; enforcement makes the penalty for prejudice more severe. So, when Bush withholds a report that documents sex discrimination, or stymies the agencies that keep track of workplace bias, he sets a standard of laxness. Every industry will soon reflect this stay-put attitude—unless women refuse to buy the myth of progress.
A few cents is no real change.
Research assistance: F. Timothy Martin
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 11, 2003