New America Weekly

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass Ceiling

Weekly Article
April 28, 2016

Mayday! We need more women!

By now, it’s a familiar story: For many years, a male-dominated industry thrives. Then, an unexpected shock—a war, a population explosion—rapidly increases demand for workers. How on earth do we face the labor force shortage? Economists and industry insiders wonder. And then, the answer: what if we hire more women? The latest example of this tale is the Asian airline industry, which, facing a surge of middle-class travelers (air travelers are set to double to seven billion by 2034), must hire over 200,000 pilots in the next 20 years. Right now, only 5 percent of captains and first officers worldwide are women, prompting companies like Vietnam Airlines Corp. and EVA Air to double down on efforts to attract more women—including flexible work schedules, scholarships and training for women in aviation, and ad campaigns to counter the image of pilots as single men. Why didn’t the idea to bring more women into their workforce occur to them sooner? In other words, why, historically, does it seem to take a crisis to make visible the promise and potential of female workers?

According to Colleen Ammerman of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, it’s because crisis brings industry-wide visibility to a problem and stimulates greater attention to potential solutions. “Since hiring happens at the level of the organization,” she elaborates, “the fact that there are benefits to the broader economy and society when more women are working doesn’t necessarily provide a clear incentive for decision-makers within companies [to do things differently].”

As Ammerman’s perspective makes clear, this question—why does it take a crisis to make change when it comes to hiring women?—isn’t new, or even limited to the aviation industry. As far back World War I and earlier, catastrophic labor shortages prompted women to move into new spheres of the working world, such as office jobs and government bureaucracy. For today’s women of Japan, for example, who last year surpassed U.S. women in workforce participation, it took another documented workforce crisis to pave the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2013 push to prioritize gender equality in the workplace.

We know that gender bias stymies economic growth and that having more workforce participation by women is crucial to economic security and stability. Perhaps what’s most revealing about this latest crisis-driven change in the aviation industry is that it underscores the limitations and the potential for the business case for gender parity. This is especially evident in light of research findings released last week by the McKinsey Global Institute. Following up on their seminal report, The Power of Parity, which estimates that advancing women’s equality around the world could add $12 trillion to global GDP, their latest findings address gender parity and economic growth in the U.S. The conclusion: “societal gender gaps,” which include both structural inequalities like unpaid care work and social bias about gender roles, “are barriers to women’s workforce participation.”

Unsurprisingly, two of the six “impact zones” the research identifies where increasing gender equality can have the most positive economic effect directly correlate to greater workforce participation by women: time spent in unpaid care work and representation in leadership and managerial positions. In a distressing but timely finding given the emerging themes of the 2016 presidential election, McKinsey’s recent report shows the U.S. has high or extremely high rates of inequality on both of these indicators—as well as women’s representation in politics.

Looking across the fifty states and the areas where gender inequality exacts the most significant impact, McKinsey put a sticker price on the amount of economic growth the U.S. is leaving on the table by failing to change the landscape: $2.1 trillion.

So if we know all this, why does it still take a workforce crisis like the one faced by Asia’s airlines to move the needle on increasing women’s participation and against gender bias that inhibits that progress? The answer, looking at the historical context of both the recent and distant past, may be that despite how far women have come, they’re still seen as a group that will detract from, rather than add to, the work environment. A liability rather than an asset. Dislodging that particular idea is harder than you might think, especially when our policies reinforce it. (Pregnancy discrimination, anyone?)

Throughout history, women’s labor has almost always been viewed as “something supplemental to the labor of men,” explains Beth English, a labor historian and director of Princeton’s Program on Women in the Global Community. The industrial revolution both reified and redefined gender norms, labeling the new female workers as “takers of men’s jobs,” and a constituency “undermining the very social fabric created from a set of gender norms and rooted in the male breadwinner ideal.” Shades of this way of thinking aren’t limited to industrial jobs, either—they cut across class and decade. In the 1950s, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was famously asked as a law student to justify her presence at Columbia Law School when her spot could have gone to a male applicant. As recently as the aftermath of the financial crisis, some who used the term “mancession” did so with an open nod to the assumption that women’s labor should be extraneous or superfluous.

Sure, these gender norms were bendable during other times of crisis. World War II was a prime example of a labor shortage radically opening up workforce opportunities to women, and creating a national childcare program to boot. But post-crisis, those workforce gender equality gains can prove hard to sustain. In more recent years, for instance, the U.S. has seen an increase of 71 percent in pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the EEOC, and entrenched problem areas like the gender wage gap, soaring childcare costs, and a lack of paid leave result in women feeling stuck, or as the Institute of Women’s Policy Research president Heidi Hartmann told the Washington Post, “women don’t feel like they get a fair break in the labor market.” Harvard sociology Professor Frank Dobbin agrees: “Lots of companies still have cultures and practices that make it difficult for women to stay and to succeed, and so they are in a vicious circle: they don’t make it easy for women, women leave because of the difficulties, and this causes top leaders to think that women aren’t really part of the core,” he explains.

Gender norms had, and continue to have, incredible staying power, English emphasizes. Unlike historical moments of crisis or worker shortage, if you “fast-forward to today, you’d rarely find a leading stakeholder in international business arguing that they aren’t actively recruiting women because of the male-as-breadwinner ideal,” she observes. “But many lingering notions about women workers as ‘different’ coupled with these very powerful class- and gender-based historical forces, create a climate in which structural inequalities are not questioned or addressed in a meaningful way and thereby perpetuated.”

One of the reasons for all of this goes beyond the simple explanation of blatant sexism. Part of it is simply that doing things differently requires commitment and effort. Cultural norms are reflections of powerful social desires. Not to mention that the labor of making change—as Iris Bohnet, author of the recent book, What Works: Equality By Design, points out—the labor of disproportionality falls to those most directly experiencing bias in the first place. “Diversity is hard work,” she explains. “Even if there is a macroeconomic business case for benefitting 100 percent of the talent pool of a diverse workforce, those doing the work of diversity often primarily experience the cost.” So whatever the specific rationale for the industry-specific status quo, the system overall is set up to disincentivize those in leadership from doing something that’s hard and to burn out those within the organization who have the temerity to try to do so.

The outlook isn’t completely bleak, however. While similarly framed around a model of labor crisis, recent efforts by sectors, including tech, cybersecurity, and the military to combat attrition may offer guidance on attracting and retaining the best talent to industries, like aviation, that are coming late to the party. Policies like paid leave and flexible work, along with initiatives like the military’s pilot program to pay for egg and sperm freezing, reflect a growing commitment among employers to acknowledging that expanding and thriving in today’s business world demands that they treat employees as individuals with unique sets of needs and priorities.

“Our research on corporate diversity programs shows a bunch of things that work to change the composition of management,” says Dobbin, mentioning mentoring programs, management training tailored to women, and work-life policies. “The effective interventions can help to turn a vicious circle virtuous.” The bigger question is: how do we break this pattern of progress only as crisis response in a paradigm-shifting way, rather than working piecemeal, industry by industry? According to McKinsey’s research, which shows that the virtues of this “virtuous cycle” are manifest in ways that can change the world for the better while stoking unprecedented economic growth, it’s by galvanizing both “individual action and collaboration among private-sector players, governments, and non-governmental organizations” with better data and evaluation of impact when it comes to furthering gender equality. So as Asia moves further into its travel boom and industry moves further into the 21st century, let’s hope that the architects of the effort to recruit more female pilots share their successes (and their failures) with other stakeholders, at home and abroad. Perhaps then it won’t take an impending economic calamity to make the case for gender equality in and beyond the workplace.