This post will be the first of a two part series on gender inequality in the United States.  Gender inequality is defined as the disparity in status, power and prestige between people who identify as women and men. Today I will look at how gender inequality still exists in the United States, despite our frequent unwillingness to acknowledge it. Next week I will focus on how the role of women in our society is still a divisive topic, no matter how surprising that might seem. 

The March 26th issue of Time Magazine proclaims on its front cover “The Richer $ex- Women are overtaking men as America’s breadwinners. Why that’s good for everyone.” The figures in the magazine show a shift in earning power that makes it seem as if gender inequality is a thing of the past. “Almost 40% of wives make more money than their husbands…Women today make up almost 60% of U.S. college students and earn the majority of doctorates and master’s degrees…In the majority of U.S. metro areas, single, childless women in their 20s make more per dollar than their male peers.” The numbers are staggering and, reading them, it’s easy to see why when you google gender inequality, the top page of hits are either sites with its definition or sites on global gender inequality in countries other than the U.S.

These numbers certainly represent progress for women in employment and education. But to take them as a sign that gender inequality is no longer present in the United States would be a dangerous mistake. To be fair, the Time article does have one paragraph that alludes to this. It states that “some academics and women’s rights advocates” warn against declaring victory for women workers. It then cites two telling figures. The first is that the wage gap persists overall between women working full time and men working full time: women earn a median weekly wage that’s only 81% of a man’s weekly median wage. And even more importantly the percentage of managers who are women has risen from 35% to only 38% of the last twenty years.

It’s this last number that should bother us and prevent us from doing as the Time article does, which continues with a cheery “But over the long term, the outlook is brighter”. Gender inequality is a disparity in power and status: this is exactly what we currently have in the workforce in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women made up 50.8% of the population in 2010. Also in 2010, women became half of all workers in the U.S. Yet this mere presence of women in the workforce is anything but a show of equality when men hold the top management positions in a variety of professions in extremely unrepresentative numbers:

In 2011, women ran only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies.

In 2010, women made up 31.5% of all lawyers but were only 19.5% of partners in U.S. law firms according to Catalyst. Additionally, 11% of the largest law firms in the U.S. had no women on their governing committees.

No state has ever achieved federal or state judgeships gender equality. Women held only 23% of all federal judgeships and only 27% of state judgeships in 2010. In its 220-year history, only four women justices have served on the Supreme Court although we currently have the all time high of three justices out of nine.

Today in the 112th Congress women hold 17 Senate seats out of 100 and hold 92 out of 435 House seats.

We have never had a woman President.

Men outnumber women at a rate of 73% vs. 27% in all sectors of employment for science and engineering as of 2009.

Obviously, there are large disparities in the number of women managers and leaders despite the fact that women make up half of the workforce. This is true gender inequality, a gender difference in power and status. Ignoring gender inequality in the U.S. or assuming the glass ceiling is broken when it’s not is dangerous. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2010, the United States ranked number 19 in terms of gender equality. A failure to recognize the problem of gender inequality in the U.S. is the perfect way to assure that we’ll never solve the problem.

A Harvard Business Review study from 2010 found that companies could and should go further in treating men and women equally.  The study showed that while “companies say that they treat men and women equally…in reality, they don’t.” Many studies, including this one, cite women’s choices to have children and stay home for an extended time period as a reason they don’t make it up the chain of command. Certainly it can help explain the disparity. However, companies and the government should also go a great deal further in implementing policies that integrate women back into the workforce in senior positions after having children including less rigid promotion processes and career paths and such initiatives as flex time.  According to a Human Rights Watch report that studied 190 countries and their parental leave policies the United States was one of only three countries with Papua, New Guinea and Swaziland that clearly offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave. To the contrary, women in the United States are still being fired for being pregnant and getting demoted when they return from maternity leave. For comparison, in Sweden, a country high on the gender equality lists, not only mothers but also 85% of fathers take parental leave.

Janet Walsh, deputy women’s rights director of Human Rights Watch said, “Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy. It’s time for the U.S. to get on board with this trend.”

Furthermore, there are a number of reasons why we should care about gender equality.  According to the Harvard Business Review study, almost 80% of women and men say they are convinced of the benefits of gender parity at all levels. These benefits include the doubling of the talent pool of leaders. as more women return to the workforce in senior positions and the increased retention of employees, which lowers retraining cost. Additionally, Klaus Schwab founder of the World Economic Forum states, “low gender gaps are directly correlated with high economic competitiveness.”

With the UN theme for 2012 as “Empower Women- End Hunger and Poverty” the United States would do well to look at gender inequality in our own country. Maybe it can be an issue to unite us- it may not be easy to find a solution but clear benefits for women, men and families would result. Now that’s something we can all get behind.