BU Today


POV: Women’s Rights? Yeah, Right

The workplace belies the idea that women are getting ahead


“POV,” a new addition to BU Today, is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

At first glance, it may seem like a wonderful time to be a woman—a time of empowerment and achievement. But look again, more closely, and you will see an ominous truth.

Women are doing spectacularly well in universities—for the first time, women are earning the majority of advanced degrees—but in the workplace, it’s the opposite picture. Women’s gains either have stalled out or are in grave danger of being rolled back.

Despite the fact that the pipeline is getting filled with educated and talented women, their way forward is too often blocked. Under a veneer of success and progress, what we call the New Soft War on Women is growing in strength. Cutting-edge new research tells us that a whole network of land mines is exploding women’s progress as they try to move ahead. Today’s skirmishes are less visible and predictable than the old and obvious closed doors, but are perhaps more effective because they are harder to detect.

Here are some of the issues women face:

A lesser payoff

More than 50 years after President Kennedy signed the first equal pay act, not much has changed. Women start behind and never catch up, even as they earn those advanced degrees. At every level of education and in virtually every occupation, men outearn women. Over a lifetime of work, women with a bachelor’s degree will earn a third less (some $700,000) than a man with the same degree. Female financial analysts take in 35 percent less than male financial analysts, and female chief executives earn 25 percent less than male executives. Female MBAs earn, on average, $4,600 less than male MBAs in their first job out of business school.

And more and more, women are flatlining in the boardroom. Increasingly, females are missing in corporate boardrooms, executive suites, and among companies’ top earners, reports the think tank Catalyst. President and CEO Ilene H. Lang says, “If this trend line represented a patient’s pulse—she’d be dead.”

No credit where credit is due

Women work hard and achieve the desired results—and men get the credit. Madeline Heilman, a New York University professor of psychology, and Michelle Haynes, a UMass Lowell assistant professor of psychology, have shown that if it isn’t crystal clear about which member of a two-member male-female team is responsible for the team’s successful joint performance, credit is far more often given to the male than the female team member. Specifically, female members were rated as being less competent, less influential, and less likely to have played a leadership role in work on the task. Both females and males fell into the trap of giving higher marks to the male team member.

This incident was related in a response to our survey on the website Glass Hammer: A 36-year-old-media manager and two other women created a huge and profitable news-gathering database system. A male colleague took credit and is still consistently credited by the male management as the creator and the most knowledgeable person on the system.

“When he turned in something he worked on that had a problem, I was blamed,” the manager says. “But when I turned in something I worked on and it was great, we were praised as a team.”

We heard this story again and again from women around the United States. It is especially ominous because in most cases, it isn’t a matter of conscious discrimination against women. It’s simply that the skewed ideas we all have in our heads about what men and women can or can’t do are incredibly hard to root out.

Men are promoted on potential, women on performance

Why do so many young male hotshots move up the ladder ahead of their more seasoned female peers? Women are being judged on what they have actually done. For promising men, potential is enough to win the day, according to research by Catalyst and McKinsey & Company. Women always have to keep proving themselves, often fighting the stereotype that they don’t have what it takes to be real leaders. Even in female-dominated fields, men get on “the glass escalator” and rise faster and higher than equally qualified women.

According to Vikram Malhotra, McKinsey’s chairman of the Americas: “Middle-management women get promoted on performance. Many middle-management men get promoted on potential. Qualified women actually enter the workforce in sufficient numbers, but they begin to plateau or drop off when they are eligible for their very first management positions. And it only gets worse after that.”

What needs to be done? First, it is absolutely essential that women let their bosses and colleagues know about their accomplishments. It is true that research finds self-promoting women risk being disliked, even when they are also seen as competent. This is the classic catch-22. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Although there are risks, it’s better to offend than to be sidelined forever.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says this bias “is at the very core of why women hold themselves back.” The solution, she suggests, is “making sure everyone is aware of the penalty women pay for success.”

Institutions also need to do much better. Recent studies find that while some 90 percent of global companies have gender diversity policies, they don’t work, because they don’t have strong support at the top. Until they do, not much will change.

Caryl Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism, can be reached at caryl@bu.edu. She and Rosalind C. Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, are the authors of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men—and Our Economy (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013).

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


15 Comments on POV: Women’s Rights? Yeah, Right

  • kmaruda@spectraenergy.com on 11.06.2013 at 7:24 am


  • Lara on 11.06.2013 at 8:34 am

    Thank you for posting this. It’s a great, although hard to swallow, wake up call to all of us entering the workforce – whether it’s women negotiating their professional salaries, or men working in teams and management boards with other women. We women have made strides in general, but we still have a LONG way to go!

  • Meh on 11.06.2013 at 10:25 am

    This doesn’t seem to be controlling for factors such as increased time off and more hours worked.

  • Marisa Torres on 11.06.2013 at 11:14 am

    Brave article, it really resonates with me. If you add one more variable to the equation, woman & minority the inequality becomes more obvious. But what its even more difficult to tackle is the fact that if you want to be assertive and position yourself, it is seen as been aggressive but if a man does exactly the same thing he is energetic and creative, as you said a catch-22.

  • Exploding Land Mine on 11.06.2013 at 11:36 am

    “Cutting-edge new research tells us that a whole network of land mines is exploding women’s progress” -I’d love to see the cutting edge new research.

    Usually people who want to get a point across without getting ripped to shreds try and have a little more of an objective stance and less of a womenly, emotional attachment.

  • Jspoinolrty on 11.06.2013 at 6:26 pm

    Wow, I really thought us guys, subconsciously would pretty much be the sole reason for this. But it seems women also have an almost equal blame for this. The fix for this is more of a reevaluation of how we look at people, which may be hard, but can be corrected if directly faced. I mean, I never even knew that more assertive women are less liked. Next time, I would be sure if hiring a woman, to be sure I wasn’t doing this. I’m sure most other guys would feel better in those job search, less face it, if this trend continued. It does make I guy feel less stressed and reassured to know this, but we must let our consciences lead us in the quest for job equality. It is the same thing with women in the military. They absolutely believe (as do I), that they have the right to be on the same place on the battlefield as a man. But ask them if that means they should enter themselves for a draft, and many say no. People obviously don’t want this, as it is better for them to say no, but with their consciences, they know true equality means swallowing some unpleasant truths. Meaning this is the situation of guys in the workplace, and we must swallow the unpleasant truth that our superiority, however satisfying, is not fair to women, and must be changed.

  • Okay, but... on 11.06.2013 at 8:09 pm

    “Both females and males fell into the trap of giving higher marks to the male team member.”

    If both men and women believe that the man in a two person male-female team, perhaps this is more of an issue of a culture in which women discourage each other from being outgoing and speaking up? Just like how men still dog each other for acting “soft”, women probably criticize each other for being “unwomanly”. This is something best solved by women themselves — not a male outsider. And part of those behaviors – both men’s tendency towards not being “soft” and women’s tendency towards “going with the flow” – might be biological.

    If that’s the case, then we’re only making men and women feel bad about aspects of themselves that are nearly impossible to change.

    • Typo on 11.06.2013 at 8:12 pm

      Meant to write “If both men and women believe that the man in a two person male-female team showed more leadership, perhaps…”

      • Nope on 02.12.2015 at 6:53 pm

        “Biological”… I do not think so. That is an extremely outdated approach. We need to think of it as how society is teaching this and how to stop it. It is a sad truth that success of a woman is harder to swallow than that of a man.

  • Woman on Short end of Stick on 11.07.2013 at 8:28 am

    My question is what to do when the one delegating is a female boss, she’s the one taking credit when all goes well and pointing the finger when it doesn’t. She’s taken this proven ‘male’ model and applied it to whatever position she’s held. I’ve heard from others who worked with her. I have female friends in mid-career who are experiencing the very same issue and it’s so unecessary. To what end? Shouldn’t we be helping one another get paid for what we’re worth? Why do their bosses let them get away with it? Male or female, those who take credit and downplay another’s compentency for their own gain, ultimately hurts the success of the operation and the performance of individuals (even those who are witnessing this happen) and reflects poorly on the company. It does come from the top, so if upper management allows it, nothing will change for those making their way up. I say change will need to first happen from the top down. Hillary for President!

    • Jspoinolrty on 11.07.2013 at 12:37 pm

      Wow, that is oppositely sexist, and I’m not saying an opinion on Hillary, but you can elect her solely because she is a woman and hope she can change cultural aspects. That really is an ignorant and misandrist assertion.

  • Alumnus on 11.21.2013 at 3:49 pm

    I’d read these statistics before, and they really are scary. I most certainly think we should think and act on this a lot more often than we do.

    Nonetheless, one factor that I always find lacking in this article is the whole issue about having children. For some reason, it is socially accepted that the woman take some time off, and is expected to be an unproductive professional for a period of time. Equally, it is expected that the father will have little-to-no disturbance in his productivity, but that instead, he is expected to be an unproductive member of the household (i.e. not taking a big leave, and leaving the mother to do most of the heavy lifting).

    I think we SERIOUSLY need to revisit paternal leave. I think Maternal and Paternal leaves should be of equal length. Anything less than that, and we skew to having women spending more time at home and men at work. Consequently, women will always be less competitive in the marketplace ceteris paribus.

    • Jen on 01.29.2014 at 6:36 pm

      Even when maternity leave is not factored into the equation women still earn lower salaries then men of comparable education and work experience.

      The United States is the only first world nation that does not have a federally mandated maternity or paternity leave. When women take maternity leave they are going on disability. Yes, pregnancy is considered a disability. If she is lucky her employer has a maternity leave package most do not. Other first world countries have federally mandated maternity leaves for at lease a year at full pay with their jobs held for them until they return. This lack of maternity leave is one of several reasons why child infant mortality in the United States ranks with that of third world countries. The family medical leave act gives you 12 weeks of Unpaid leave but really who can go 12 weeks without pay?

      • HR Professional on 02.04.2014 at 2:08 pm


        FMLA leave for the birth or adoption of a child is not disability. They are completely separate. It is not considered a disability under the Family Medical Leave Act.

        At BU for example a mother can use paid sick and vacation time during this 12 weeks.

        Your claim that this is a cause of infant mortality in the U.S.is unsubstantiated very dubious rankings btw).

        Further, what employer can afford to pay someone for a year for not working? Not only does it leave a necessary job vacant it makes no sense. No one should get paid for not working. This type of entitlement is also one reason so many “first world” countries are in economic collapse. Take a look at such policies in Greece for an example.

  • Jen on 01.29.2014 at 6:16 pm

    The most telling statement in this article is that diversity programs “don’t work, because they don’t have strong support at the top.” Guess who is at the top? White, middle aged men otherwise known as the “pale, male and stale.” These men actually believe that their companies are meritocracies, that the best qualified individuals are in the positions of power and if women aren’t there it is because they either aren’t qualified or they don’t want to be there. They believe this despite numerous and extensive studies comparing wages/salaries, education and accomplishments that prove otherwise. What to do? Perhaps we should follow the example of Norway, Spain and Sweden and legislate gender quotas in the boardroom but take it further and legislate gender quotas in upper management and the executive suite too.

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