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What women want – they never get it right, do they?

A recent article in the Economist,”Sex changes” claims that glass ceilings are giving way to glass partitions. That is, women are indeed making inroads into careers that were traditionally male dominated, but they are choosing to do so only in certain areas of these professions. And they are choosing the lower paying areas.

Maybe people are just sick of the usual gender inequality rhetoric and they just want to sing a different tune, but for a reputed magazine like Economist, I would say the case needs to be supported better by more data and analysis. The only trends shown in the article shows an increasing trend of women in the three male dominated professions they have chosen to analyse. But when it comes to driving home the point that there are less women in the higher paying areas, the numbers presented are sketchy and inadequate. When making a claim like this, it is insufficient to use “anecdotal evidence” to “suggests that few female commercial barristers return to work after having babies“. And the “worries” of a a member of barrister’s guild about “those mothers who do return to the commercial bar will revert to type, taking only short, low-profile cases” just ain’t evidence either.

About the Church of England example, the evidence that “the most recent figures show 314 women training to be non-stipendiary priests, compared with just 200 men” isn’t enough to say that “women priests also show a preference for non-stipendiary (unpaid) work“. Yes, the absolute numbers are higher, but what really needs to be compared in this case is the % of women vs men. The article further states that “whatever their pastoral value, such clergy are less likely to secure the top jobs in the Church, if they are ever allowed to apply for them“. Perhaps that is precisely the reason that women tend to apply for non-stipend work (if that claim is indeed true). The clergy profession, in its very essence, is service-oriented and without the motivation of being able to apply for higher pastoral jobs, they take up unpaid work. This is not glass partitions, it is a glass ceiling for sure!

A publication like Economist tends to be taken seriously, and when they make claims about changes in gender trends, one wishes that these claims will be well researched and well analysed. There just isn’t enough evidence in the article presented to make these claims. It goes against my common sense that well-educated women, who have worked as hard or more (given that some of them may have faced discrimination, they might have had to work harder) than men to attain their qualifications, will just sit back and choose to be working in the less paying areas of their professions. Its not always about pay too – the higher paying ones tend to be the most challenging and most exciting – and any self respecting professional would not want to excluded from the fun.

If indeed the claims are true, a good analysis would go beyond the superficial reasoning of thats “what a girl wants” to what the underlying reasons for this trend are. Is it because women are better suited for these jobs? Or are they being pressured by their family commitments to take up professions that are less taxing? Do their spouses have ridiculous egos that resent wives who get paid more? Are women who paid more less attractive socially and hence, there is a subconscious negative selection of higher paying jobs? Or is it the expectations of the society that women have to be paid less and thus, even when they are forced to break the glass ceilings they have to replace it with the glass partitions? Or is there a wrongful distribution of pay in the professions, which HR managers need to look at? The possibilities are endless, and without adequate research, one can only speculate. And this is the kind of analysis I would have expected Economist to make before laying out such claims.

Posted in Society, Women on June 19, 2005

7 Responses

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  1. Pramod says

    Lots of questions there – I have some thougths of some of them – may be one day I will get some facts to support them – esp. when the reader is as discerning as you are ;-)

    But I just want to say something interesting that I heard from the leading Marketing professor at INSEAD, France. It seems more and more of the serious students they get are females, particularly from India. And its showing an increasing trend. And according to him by the year 2010 – there will be a very visible change in the gender distribution of senior jobs in India and elsewhere. Now again, I don’t have much data to substantiate, but coming from a prof. I am tempted to believe it.

    One reason for this could be that females, perhaps because they feel they can take more risk than equivalent females when it comes to selecting b-Schools, are more willing to come to European schools than UK/US schools – and hence the trend the prof. saw is local to European schools (I heard similar comments from the Spanish and the Italian schools and I thought there were more females than males amongst the foreign students community in France when I was studying there (it could also be that I was so pre-occupied with the girls that I didn’t see the guys.)

  2. Anjali says

    Agree…not the best piece of research I have seen. I would have expected them to delve into why women choose less demanding positions – is it because they are inherently attracted to such positions or is it because the social framework they operate in does not allow them to embrace challeging assignments more willingly.

    My theory is that even though women now have better access to education and employment opportunities (I think what Pramod is saying is true), society still hasn’t changed their outlook on women. A woman’s primary role in society is still to raise a family (i stopped counting the number of times I have been asked when I am going to have a baby even though I have excelled in my field and have several other interests) while men are still seen as the primary breadwinners. It is perfectly okay for a man with a family to dedicate himself to his career (because his wife will take care of everything else) while it is not the same for women. They are saddled with a lot of emotional baggage. I work in a field where there are many women, and in my company, many of the senior people are women. A lot of them are starting to have kids now, and the ones who are able to remain at the top are the ones whose husbands have decided to take the backseat (while mommy brings home the bacon), or those who have family help easily available. The ones who don’t have either have quit because they haven’t been able to deal with the pressures of waking up at 2 in the morning to feed a wailing infant and then taking a flight at 6AM to deal with a wailing client!

    I think we have a long way to go before women are truly “equal” i.e., free to do what they choose without being made to feel guilty because the female role model in society is an accomplished homemaker. I feel sorry for men too – if they could also be freed from this goal of being the primary breadwinner, then they too would be more open to taking on untraditional roles. In addition to the social/personal circumstances, I think the prevailing popular work culture, where there is less emphasis on a well-balanced life and more emphasis on work being the primary preoccupation, is also an important reason for women not wanting to aim for higher positions. If the work environment was more “regular”, then both men and women would be able to deliver efficient results in more reasonable working hours and then both would be able to go back home to their families and attend to their needs as well. Women would not have to feel guilty about abandoning their families to further their careers and men would also have time to share family responsibilities. (that’s my solution – people just need to work less!! :)

    The one thing I am still unsure about is whether women and men are just wired differently or is it the social climate that makes them believe that they have different capabilities i.e., is a woman really better at handling a baby and a man better at? (cutting wood perhaps??:) or is that just what we have been told through the ages?? Are we intrinsically different and hence attracted to different types of professions or is it just social conditioning that makes us do that. I think it is social conditioning, but am open to thinking otherwise.

  3. Surya says

    If there is indeed a difference in gender trends in Europe vs US, thats very interesting, probably not unexpected though. Bschool trends are a reflection of the trends in the professional world and I dont think its that surprising. I have felt that the “old boys club” syndrome cited about many corporations in US is less prevalent here. Could be one of the reasons. Maybe Europe has more women in the professional scene because there is a lot more work-life balance..- and as Anjali said, women have less reason to feel guilty abt abandoning families and men have more time to help at home.

    I am not sure women take more risk – I thought women were more cautious – in just about everything ( just IMHO :)

  4. Surya says

    I agree – we still have a good way to go before there is real equality – society and guilt instilled by years of social conditioning contribute significantly to this. But its heartening to see that more and more men are willing to take the homemaker role. I am not sure if you watch the Desperate Housewives show, but I am totally looking forward to seeing the Desparate Househusband in action in Season2.

    Harvard President Larry Summers’ recent claim that women and men are innately different sparked off a slew of criticism. I dint follow the debate (or rather, violent opposition) too much because after a while, it just got too widespread and out-of-hand. I think there might have been some hint of truth in what Summers said , just inadequately supported and horribly worded, which gave an opportunity for such furore. He eventually apologized. From the huge opposition, I guess its more intuitive and easy to digest that men and women are inherently equal and social conditoning makes them different – and its hard to prove either way, because we all have been affected by social conditioning to some extent or the other.

    An interesting “experiment” in this topic is the old Israeli Kibbutz societies. Not really a gender experiment in itself, but intriguing because it is one of the very few real examples we have of a gender equality experiment. The Kibbutz movement, at some stage of its evolution, had professed and practised total equality of men and women and they performed exactly the same roles and jobs in society. That the Kibbutz traditions eventually died a natural death is often cited as evidence that men and women cannot function successfully in an absolutely egalatarian society. I think the conclusion is a bit too much extrapolation – nonethless Kibbutzim is a good topic to check out if you are interested in the question.

  5. Anjali says

    Hi Surya,

    Very interesting, the Kibbutz system. Didn’t know about it.

    Yes, i too followed the Larry Summers controversy for some time, but gave up later. I think he is as guilty as the Economist article of making sweeping generalisations without backing it up with sufficient data.

  6. Pramod says

    I was thinking – isn’t it kind of counter-intuitive to talk about “equality” between men and women. It is in a way meaningless.

    Our constitution (Indian) adopted gender equality as one of the fundamental principles. Now think about this for a moment, can the constitution let me give the ability to have babies? Just a silly qstn. But it shows the limitations of the equality concept.

    Females, have to bear the baby for 9 months and we guys can’t! So this has some implications on whats meant by equal. In the past this was rather clear, due to the physical nature of most activities and also distance from home (whatever it meant.)

    But today, with the more intellectual natuer of work, there’s confusion.

    And I think it will tkae time (much more than what we can imagine) to change things – from the way it has been for ages.

    One issue I think is that females (males too but not in this context) takes an indivdual case and generalise based on that.

    Surya, I tried this preview plugin, but it slows down the typging process a lot. So I took it off! Will continue on my thoughts later on….

  7. Madan says

    Emotional Intelligence is very high in women. They make good counsellors, teachers, and micro managers. Riskier professions are best left to men. One cannot genarlise here. It has to do with cultural and social barriers.

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