There was a problem when I was growing up in Hawaii in the 1950s, the problem of women not being taken seriously as anything other than wives.
When my friend Sandra Osorio Stoner went to get advice from our college counselor who was also the president of Punahou School, Dr. John Fox, he told Sandra to go to the University of Southern California because USC was a good place to meet a rich husband.
I used to get irked at friends’ weddings when I was home on vacation from my job as a reporter in the Vietnam War. Some well-meaning adult would invariably come up to me at a wedding to say, “You will be next to marry, dear.” As if marriage was all I dreamed about; as if there was nothing else in my future.
Since then, so much has happened in terms of options for women. According to the U.S. Census, women now hold half the jobs in America. But there is still a problem.
Now the problem is too few women are making it into the top echelons of management.
And despite the Equal Pay for Equal Work law enacted 51 years ago, women continue to get less money than men for the same work.
My angst in thinking about this is amplified by the way politicians — often men including President Obama talk about one stop solutions to resolve gender inequity — a problem with deep and complex societal roots
Sen. Brian Schatzʻs campaign is sending emails and airing a TV commercial to explain his support for the Paycheck Fairness Act. The act is a proposal to strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act law by making employers more accountable for pay discrimination and giving women more tools to sue when they are unfairly underpaid.
Never mind that the legislation for the fourth year is going nowhere, blocked by Republicans. And even with improvements in the bill, it is still complicated to sue for pay parity.
In his commercial Schatz says he is pushing for the badly stalled bill, “Because it is outrageous women still aren’t paid the same as men for doing the same job.”
I agree. It is outrageous. But I am also outraged by the fact that many women continue to be denied more than just equal pay but equal access to the highest paying jobs.
Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, Schatzʻs rival in Hawaiiʻs Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat, says it’s amazing that 51 years after the enactment of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act we are still having the same conversation about pay equity for women.
Hanabusa also supports the Paycheck Fairness Act. But she says gender equity in the workplace is a problem far more complex than can be addressed by any single bill.
Hanabusa remembers when she was a labor attorney walking into a meeting of labor union member clients and being told to bring them coffee. They thought she was the secretary.
Another of Hanabusa’s clients, the late Art Rutledge, head of Local 5 and the Teamsters, when he found out Hanabusa was assigned to be his attorney told her to go home and cook her husband dinner and tend to the children.
Hanabusa told Rutledge she would see him in the morning. She says eventually he came to respect and admire her toughness.
I talked with Hanabusa in a phone interview at her congressional office in Washington to find out if she thinks it is possible to legislate away the lingering problem of employer reticence to promote more women to senior level positions.
Only 4.2 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women.
A problem President Obama acknowledges, after touting Equal Pay for Equal Work legislation, saying, “We’ve got to make it possible for more women to enter higher paying fields.”
Hanabusa says lawmakers can pass all kinds of laws saying you shall do this and you shall do that to make life fairer for women at work.
But she says that won’t make a difference if key employers continue to consider gender when hiring for top jobs instead of who is the best person for the position.
New York Times writer Frank Bruni in a recent Sunday op-ed article titled “Women’s Unequal Lot,” said “Patriarchies, like old habits, die hard. In many areas, we’re simply accustomed to being led by men. It’s our default, our fallback.”
Bruni says the workforce disparities women face are so much more complicated than salary. President Obama likes to throw out the figure that women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make but Bruni points out that figure only focuses on men and women who work full time. It fails to consider the longer hours men work and it leaves out paychecks of men and women who work part time. Also, the size of pay discrepancy depends on where you are.
In Hawaii, women earn 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In Washington, D.C, it is 90 cents to the dollar.
The largest difference is in Wyoming where women earn 64 cents to every dollar a man earns. No matter where, it’s true. Women earn less.
Bruni writes: ”By suggesting the chief culprit for women’s inferior earnings is discriminatory pay, the 77 cent figure lets too many men off the hook, not forcing them to confront their culpability as bosses who care too little for women’s advancement, as husbands who prioritize their own careers and as fathers who don’t participate fully around the house.”
There is also the problem of women holding themselves back from high-powered positions which is addressed by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, in her best selling book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”
Jill Abramson, first executive editor in the history of the New York Times was asked by Gotham magazine what “lean in” meant to her.
Abramson said. “What it means is don’t automatically be a backbencher. Don’t leave before you have to leave and don’t self-edit yourself out of a power equation.”
Hanabusa believes the phenomenon of women holding back when they should be pushing for top jobs is a cultural thing.
She says her own philosophy is to keep pushing ahead to make it easier for the next generation of women.
“If we just throw up our hands in the air, it is going to be hard for the next generation.”
Hanabusa sees progress for women seeking prestigious jobs, but she says she still hears disparaging comments that amaze her.
Hanabusa says when she first ran for Congress, a critic tried to talk her out of it, saying if she won Hawaii would have two Japanese women in the U.S. House. Hanabusa told him that was true but nobody complained when Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case were both congressmen.
What does Schatz think? He didn’t answer me personally but his campaign manager Clay Schroers sent an emailed response.
In the emailed statement, Schatz said increased childcare, flexible work hours and quality child care would help increase the number of women in senior executive leadership positions.
He added, “However, this is not a problem that legislation alone can solve. This is something that must change within our society, and we need to continue to work to embrace everyone’s talents.
“Some of that can be legislated, and some can be encouraged through policy, but some things must also change within our communities in how we treat women, and in how we raise our sons and daughters and the values we teach them.”
As for me, I think eliminating gender inequality in the workplace is going to take a long and sustained effort. As Hanabusa put it, “We can either fold up and walk away or play. I chose to play.”