Women Are Not an Issue

Am I the only one who is tired of having to justify why women matter, asks Frances Mensah Williams. Surely the value of a woman should be a no-brainer

March 8th was International Women’s Day and I am trying to stay upbeat about where we are as women, but having a hard time doing so. 

International Women’s Day was a global day of recognition and celebration of women and in many countries it was an official holiday. 2011 is the global centenary year, commemorating 100 years since International Women’s Day was first marked.

As another year passes, in some areas women continue to make progress and to chart new gains and achievements.  But, in many other areas, the benefits that women can bring to business and to service is being undervalued and underutilised. 

Progress?

In a recent report, the United States Government Accountability Office found that, in all but three of the 13 industries covered by the report, women had a smaller share of management positions than they did of that industry’s overall work force. The sectors where women were more heavily represented in management than outside of it were construction, public administration and transportation and utilities.

Across the industries, while the gender gap in managers’ pay “narrowed slightly” over the past decade, even after adjusting for demographic differences, the reality is that female full-time managers earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by male full-time managers in 2007, compared with 79 cents in 2000. Slight indeed.

And when it comes to having children, the report showed that across the work force, the pay gap was also slightly wider for managers who had children. Managers who were mothers earned 79 cents of every dollar paid to managers who were fathers, after adjusting for things like age and education. This gap has stayed the same since at least 2000.

The report suggests that the greater toll that parenthood appears to take on women’s salaries may help explain why, generally speaking, female managers are less likely to have children than their male counterparts. Female managers were also less likely to be married than male managers, at rates of 59 percent versus 74 percent, respectively.

Investing in Women

A few months ago, a coalition of global investors, managing over US $73 billion in assets, called on companies across the world to increase representation of qualified women on boards of directors and in senior management. The call from Pax World, Calvert and Walden Asset Management, was in response to a survey of 4,200 global companies that found only 9.4% of directors on corporate boards were women.

These findings have led a number of mainstream investors to identify gender balance and diversity as a strategic issue in their investment activity. The investors in this new coalition have asked 54 selected companies from across the business spectrum for greater clarity about gender balance within their organizations.

“We view gender equality and women’s empowerment as strategic business and investment issues,” said Joe Keefe, the (male) President and CEO of Pax World.  Mr Keefe adds that “When women are at the table, the discussion is richer, the decision-making process is better, management is more innovative and collaborative and the organization is stronger. Because companies that advance and empower women are, in our view, better long-term investments, we are encouraging companies in our portfolios to enhance their performance on gender issues.”

Encouraging words indeed, but I have to confess to feeling rather dispirited that companies have to be offered a financial rationale for recognising the genuine talent that comes in the form of their female employees.

Supporting the Sisters

Now, calls like this for change are all very worthy and I’m sure well meant, but let me ask: am I the only one who is tired of having to justify why women matter?  Women are not an ‘issue’; they are the majority of the earth’s citizens, the means by which our population exists and, therefore, vital to the future of mankind.  The value of a woman should be a no-brainer.

So why are people still forced to make a ‘business case’ for employing women, having to find statistics and metrics to prove that women in senior positions make a difference to how successful a business can be?
Just as many Black people are fed up of having to prove that they are just as competent as the other ethnicities they work with, many women are getting weary of having to explain why they warrant being taken seriously.

Recently, I was amazed to read the comments made by some online commentators about a television newscaster who had taken a second maternity leave within 2 years of her first.  Rants and abuse included comments such as being ‘a disgrace to women’; ‘a perfect example of why men don’t want to hire women’ and why ‘no small business will ever give a woman a job’.  No-one seemed to suggest that there was anything wrong with her husband for fathering a second child two years after his first.

I would have been saddened but less shocked if these comments had come from some of those stubbornly Neanderthal-like men who, whether through fear or just pure ignorance, would happily keep women chained to the kitchen sink and tell them any opinions they would like them to have.  But, sadly, many of these commentators were women, which really made me wonder.

What happened to the sisterhood and female solidarity? Have we been pushed so far onto the defensive that we have no option but to turn on each other instead?  Are we so fearful of having our privileges and partial acceptance withdrawn that we attack those who choose to exercise their legal rights and options?

Change We Need to Believe In

Women are not a special interest group or a minority and, as a global society, we should not go along with any views or policies that suggest this.  It is not a question of pitting women against men but of including women alongside men.  Divide and rule along gender lines leaves us all worse off.

My hope is that this year, the centenary year of International Women’s Day, will spark a change in mindset for all of us; one that says that our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives are equally as valuable as our fathers, brothers, sons and husbands. 

I hope that it will remind women that a divided house will not stand and that we need to respect each other and respect our individual choices with understanding and compassion.  I also hope that it will remind men that, without women, they would simply not exist. Some men, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, speak about their female partners as ‘my better half’.  Isn’t it time the world started to treat them as such?

By Frances Mensah Williams, the Chief Executive of Interims for Development, a Human Resources and Training consultancy and Editor of ReConnect Africa.com (www.reconnectafrica.com) an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.