Simon Says: Women’s History Month – Cents and Sensibility

One of the most famous US advertising campaigns kicked off in 1968, marketing Virginia Slim cigarettes to young professional women with the tagline – “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Using images of independent, self-confident women, the campaign connected with the emerging women’s movement of the 60’s and 70’s that took aim at gender stereotypes.

Think of what’s changed since those ads first aired. Here are just a few of the milestones. Newspapers no longer list job ads by gender. Title IX knocked down gender barriers in athletics and education. Ivy League schools that once were off limits to female students are now co-ed. Banks can no longer deny credit cards and loans to unmarried women, and women can’t be fired just because they’re pregnant. Sexual harassment is unlawful. Birth control is widely available and Roe v. Wade is the law of the land.

Consider the jobs women now hold. While many women still work as teachers, nurses, or secretaries, they’re just as likely to be professors, doctors, or lawyers. It’s been more than three decades since Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court. Now, three women sit on the top Court, and the percentage of women serving as federal judges has more than quadrupled.

In what were once exclusively male pursuits, gender increasingly seems to matter less these days. This year, nearly one-third of the entrants in Alaska’s grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were women. Last year, more than 14,000 women finished the Boston Marathon up from the 8 that ran in 1972 when women could first enter the race. Women competed in Olympic boxing in 2012, and then took on ski jumping at the 2014 games in Sochi.

Women have come a long way since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Then, women who worked full-time made 59 cents on average for every dollar men earned. Fast forward fifty years –and women still earn less than men. By 2010, women were earning 77 cents for every dollar a man earned, and in 2013, women’s earnings were 79.2% of men’s. Even though the gender gap in the US is less than in many other countries, the gap’s still there.

A new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that, in some states, a woman born today won’t see wage equality in her lifetime. Even Washington DC, which is touted as the best place for women to work and earn, is not expected to close the gender gap until 2055. Talk about optics – the male-female pay gap at the White House reportedly remains about the same as Obama’s first year in office.

And women still lag behind men when it comes to advancement. While women are running Fortune 500 companies like Xerox and GM, they are the exception. Less than 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. And as of 2013, women were about 17% of their board members. So what’s holding them back? According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, many believe that women are held to higher standards and many businesses are just not ready to put a woman in the top spot.

Women have made progress, but there’s room for more. Census Bureau statistics confirm that women now comprise nearly half of the US workforce, and more than half of all college students (undergraduate and graduate). The pipeline’s growing. But as the size of the US workforce continues to decrease and competition becomes increasingly global, the talent wars are heating up. Pay equity and advancement opportunities for women are squarely on the front burner.

While waiting for the law to catch up to the new realities, what’s an employer to do? It’s time to revisit your recruitment, hiring, and pay policies, and make sure they still fill the bill. In the meantime, it only makes sense to start thinking about what you can – and should – do to attract and retain top female talent.

What do you think?

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