Women, Work and the Fight to "Have It All"

by Gabrielle Balzell

Without a doubt, women have made great strides in business, and their economic power is ever increasing. But has the glass ceiling finally been broken, or has it merely been raised?

Long gone are the days of women as submissive housewives or property of their husbands. Female leaders of the past blazed trails and broke down barriers that have allowed today’s generation of working women to become leaders at home, at the office and in the marketplace. But what work still needs to be done? And can women ever really “have it all?”

Capturing Clout
If current trends continue, women are poised to become the next generation’s breadwinners, bringing on the greatest economic shift since World War II and flipping sociological norms as we know them. Not only are women obtaining higher education in greater numbers, they’re both entering the workforce and becoming entrepreneurs at ever-increasing rates as well.

“Women are making a very unique and valuable mark on the workplace in ways they never have before,” says Jennifer Robin, assistant professor of management in Bradley University’s Foster College of Business Administration and author of numerous books on the contemporary workplace. “The trend line is definitely that women are becoming more involved in the business world.”

It’s a trend that is likely to continue, as more women today are obtaining college degrees than men, setting them up for success in the workforce. Women currently comprise about 60 percent of U.S. college students, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2011 report, Spotlight on Statistics: Women at Work, about 23 percent of females hold a bachelor’s degree by age 23, compared to just 14 percent of their male counterparts. Some experts predict that within the next quarter-century, females will also dominate the legal and medical professions, as they were already earning nearly half of all law and medical degrees in 2010.

The BLS also reports that females now account for 49.3 percent of the American non-farm labor force—up more than 13 percent since 1972. Soon, they will comprise the majority of the nation’s workers, as the female civilian labor force has been projected to increase by 6.5 million over the decade between 2008 and 2018. In addition, more mothers are working than ever before. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of working mothers in the U.S. increased dramatically—from 45 to 78 percent—shifting both societal expectations and the power balance at home.

And when it comes to entrepreneurship, women have been launching startups at twice the rate of men for the last three decades, and they’re expected to account for more than half of new small business jobs expected to be created by 2018. “I think owning your own business makes a significant difference,” remarks Diana Hall, owner and CEO of Bard Optical. After buying the business in 1981, Hall grew Bard Optical from a single office in Peoria to a regional leader in eye care, with 20 locations throughout Illinois. “I think there tends to be so much growth inwomen business owners because then, they can [control] their destiny.”

In Illinois alone, the number of small businesses started by females increased 20 percent from 2002 to 2007, compared to a modest seven-percent increase in those launched by males, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. And social media is making it easier than ever, as websites like Etsy and Pinterest are allowing women to sell arts and crafts online and build up a following for all types of businesses, from consumer goods to technology companies.

The Modern “Sheconomy”
Years of progress have yielded a rise in the number of women in positions of power in the workplace, as well as a substantial increase in female influence over the economy. Not surprisingly, data from the BLS shows that women are beginning to take over middle management—positions for which they may hold the advantage both scientifically and statistically, as most require refined communication skills, high social intelligence and advanced degrees. In 2010, females held 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—nearly double the figure of 30 years earlier—and the numbers of females in accounting, banking and insurance jobs all hover around 50 percent. Today, women are increasingly entering those industries, as well as becoming physicians and attorneys, and leveling the playing field in other white-collar jobs.

Others, like Cori Rutherford, vice president and general manager of Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino, have grabbed the bull by the horns and risen to the top executive levels of organizations—even in traditionally male-dominated industries. After starting out in a part-time position, Rutherford climbed her way up the corporate ladder and now oversees the multi-million-dollar property’s daily operations, managing more than 800 employees. While her male mentors made it clear that “it wasn’t going to be an easy path,” she credits both their leadership and her will “to do that much better than the man next to her” for her success.

“I was given a lot of opportunity,” she says, “and… I owe that to a lot of people I worked with who believed in me and gave me a shot. I always believed that the harder I worked, the more I could move up. And it happened for me.”

Also worth noting, more and more women are out-earning men as well. The majority of single women, ages 22 to 30 and without children, have a higher median income than their male counterparts. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey found that single women in their 20s without children who live in metropolitan areas earned on average 108 percent of that of single, childless males—a figure that was even higher in cities like New York (117%) and Atlanta (121%).

And it’s not just young, single women who are earning more. The BLS’ 2009 data showed that four in 10 working wives now out-earn their husbands. Those numbers were increasing even before the Great Recession, suggesting that it’s no fluke caused by a down economy but a longer-term trend that is shaking up gender roles in society. As for women in top executive positions, a recent study of S&P 500 companies found that the median compensation for female CEOs exceeded that of male CEOs by 13 percent.

As females have gained more control in the office and at home, they have also increased their influence on the economy. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that in households in which husbands earn more income, purchasing decisions are divided equally, but in households in which wives are the breadwinners, they typically make twice as many purchasing decisions as their husbands. Women are also increasingly making buying decisions in categories once dominated by men. In 2007, for example, they accounted for $90 billion of the $200 billion spent on consumer electronics, and $105 billion of the $256-billion home improvement market.

With women influencing about 85 percent of all purchasing decisions, companies are beginning to realize that America’s most powerful consumers may also be invaluable financial and strategic advisors. A 2010 Catalyst study found that companies with a significant percentage of females on their boards had an 84-percent greater return on sales, 60-percent greater return on invested capital, and 46-percent greater return on equity than companies without women on their boards. And yet, while all of this data seems reassuring, Robin warns that “we still have a long way to go.”

A Higher Glass Ceiling
While the workplace has seen many advances for women over the last half-century, an unseen barrier seems to persist. Power and wage issues, along with longstanding stereotypes, still plague females, and keep them just out of equilibrium with men.

Although women are succeeding in middle management, most seem be getting stalled out before rising to the executive ranks. In 2012, females account for just 16 percent of representatives in Congress, 16 percent of partners in the country’s largest law firms, and 15 percent of senior executives at Fortune 100 firms. And while their median salaries may be higher, women comprise a paltry four percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Even as some wives are beginning to out-earn their husbands, the longstanding gender-based wage gap remains. According to 2010 BLS data, women make just 81.2 percent of what men earn across all occupations. The gap is even wider in Illinois, where women make just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. A study by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that full-time working women in Illinois lose approximately $20.9 billion in annual wages due to this enduring gap—an amount that, per capita, is equivalent to two years worth of grocery purchases, seven months of mortgage and utilities payments, 14 months of rent, 36 months of family health insurance premiums, or just over 3,000 additional gallons of gasoline.

Robin suggests three primary reasons that researchers hypothesize have caused these differences between men and women: legacy issues, negotiation skills and career paths. The fact that so many leadership positions are currently occupied by men increases the likelihood of males being mentored to assume those roles in the future, while the absence of female role models in the workplace continues to reinforce the same status quo.

And while just a generalization, women are often considered to have weaker negotiation skills than men, something Robin’s colleague Selena Rezvani addresses in her book Push Back: How Smart Women Ask—And Stand Up For—What They Want. Rezvani argues that females are less likely to ask for the things they want at work and often do not advocate strongly enough for themselves.

Meanwhile, on a more personal level, women tend to have a more fragmented career path than men, as many step out of the workplace to raise a family or take care of a loved one­—often resulting in a broken or delayed upward trajectory as they try to balance work and home.

Having It All
Earlier this year, the media zeroed in on this topic after Marissa Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo while concurrently announcing that she was six months pregnant and planned to work through her maternity leave. Had a man been chosen for the same position while also announcing he had a baby on the way, the same frenzy would not likely have ensued. However, Mayer was seen as refuting society’s long-held expectation that women can’t both have a family and attain senior executive positions—that they can’t “have it all.”

Coincidentally, about the same time, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in which she argued that it’s impossible for women to find the balance needed to excel in all areas of life at once unless they are “superhuman, rich or self-employed.” The two ladies ignited a debate that left both men and women asking if Mayer could fulfill all of her new duties… and women wondering what the future has in store for them. Can they really have it all? Or will women always have to make a sacrifice in some aspect of their lives? And are Mayer and Slaughter setting the standard for generations to come?

“I think what struck me is that [the articles] were almost treated as a referendum on what should be, or what will be in the future,” Robin suggests. “The moment we make them a referendum on what is, what should be or what’s to come, we lose… The real value in both stories is to show women making choices that work for them… We can’t talk about women in the workplace as one monolithic group, because there are many, many ways that women will… show up in the workplace and balance their work and life.”

With the proverbial glass ceiling still an issue, a major part of the solution lies in reorganizing corporate policies to be more versatile for all employees. “We need to acknowledge the differences in the ways that people approach their work and manage their work/life balance,” Robin explains. “I think the more flexibility that can be put into place, the better.”

Robin adds that today’s “cookie-cutter approach” is not working for anyone in the modern workforce—men included—something also acknowledged by Hall and Rutherford. They agree that what’s missing in business and at home is greater balance for both genders, and moving forward, additional flexibility in the office will benefit everyone. Not only that, we also need to redefine what “having it all” means, and realize that everyone’s definition and life choices will be different.

Whether “having it all” means becoming a top executive while one’s husband tends to family needs, staying at home while the children are young, finding a way to do everything at once, or having no family at all, the choice is up to each individual. And while maintaining an ideal work/life balance remains a challenge, these three ladies seem to have figured out what works best for themselves.

"I think it’s very difficult when you say ‘I want 100 percent of every component of life,’” Hall says. “Something probably has to give. You have to decide what your priorities are. I think having it all is… going to sleep every night feeling really good about what I did… I pretty much feel like I do have it all.”

“I career-chased the majority of my life,” Rutherford adds. “And then I finally said, ‘You know what? I can do both.’ I got married and had a child, and I still made it to the top… I think I finally figured it out because I know that the most important thing… in life to me at the end will be my family. And I have to remember that I work to live—I don’t live to work.”

And while Mayer’s announcement prompted mixed emotions from both sexes, Robin saw it as an empowering declaration that should inspire others to take control. “I was really encouraged by the fact that she both made a choice that worked for her and was comfortable being vocal about it—and not hiding behind ideas of how she ‘should’ go about her life.”

A Bright Future
So what will happen with working women in this second decade of the 21st century, and beyond? It’s possible that one’s chromosomal makeup will remain an inherent factor in one’s career, or perhaps not. Will women overcome their remaining hurdles and take control in all aspects of life? Will true equality of the sexes finally be achieved? Only time will tell, but Robin, Hall and Rutherford all remain optimistic.

“We need to see people as individuals that have unique characteristics and a perspective based upon their experience,” Robin says. “I think that we can overcome a lot of things, not by treating women in a special way, but by treating everyone as individuals, rather than as an overall group [defined by] a single characteristic.”

Hall agrees, foreseeing only progress in how businesses will allow both women and men to make those choices. “I think we’re going to embrace what we want our lives to be, and not let other people decide what ‘having it all’ means… I think we’re going to have the flexibility to do that.”

And if they go after their dreams with a strong will and enduring drive, Rutherford asserts, they can obtain them. “Women can have opportunity. It may not be handed to them. They may have to work for it. But it is there—you just have to go after it.” iBi

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