Fair for men and women?

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Trying to get a handle on how women are doing in the work force today can be confusing.

Women are graduating college in higher numbers than men. In the Portland-Vancouver area, women in their 20s make more money than their male peers. And women did much better than men at holding on to their jobs through the recession — 8 percent of women are unemployed, compared with 9.8 percent of men.

That’s significant progress since the 1970s, when women made just 57 cents for every $1 men made. But women still only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. They hold the top job at just three of the 20 largest employers in Clark County, and at only 15 of the 500 largest U.S. corporations. There’s room for improvement.

It’s important to acknowledge that women’s own decisions are a factor. More men go into high-paying fields like engineering and more women go into education, where salaries are lower. Women are more likely to take time off when their children are young.

If women ultimately make less money than men because of their own choices, then pay discrepancies might be something we should just accept.

But there’s more to this than individual decision making. Among people with the same amount of education and experience, in the same type of job, men come out ahead by more than $4,000 per year. Men receive 15 percent more promotions than their female colleagues.

Lisa Schauer, vice president of business development and the only woman among Vancouver-based McKay and Sposito’s six partners, believes that awareness and communication are key to overcoming some of the cultural barriers that make women less likely to advance.

Her company will never be able to recruit its way to gender equity as long as 84 percent of engineering students are men. But it strives to create a nurturing environment where the women it does hire can advance and where women feel that their parenting priorities are valued and supported.

Men benefit from these efforts, too, Schauer said. Moms can leave early to pick up kindergartners after the first day of school. Dads can head out to coach Little League in the afternoon.

A recent report in the Harvard Business Review suggests companies can make greater strides if they look at how they mentor and communicate with women. Mentors tend to help women improve at the jobs they have now, and to help men prepare for the jobs they want in the future. Just being aware of these differences can help us address them.

Legal protections prohibit discrimination by gender. Two decades ago, girls lagged at school, but reforms have closed that gap. Now it’s up to business give women opportunities — or risk losing talented contributors to their bottom lines.

It’s also important to recognize the challenges that men face in today’s economy. Schools are failing growing numbers of boys. The jobs that traditionally provided good wages to young men are disappearing.

As the Chinese proverb says, women hold up half the sky. I’d add that men hold up the other half.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.