A new poll from Elle and the Center for American Progress tells us a bit about how men and women are faring in the workplace, but may tell us more about why it’s difficult to discuss honestly how sex influences people’s employment experience.
Much of this poll of working men and women suggests that men and women increasingly face the same pressures: Dads (45 percent) are almost as likely as moms (48 percent) to say they wouldn’t work outside the home if they didn’t need to — working fathers now face the same juggling act and feelings of guilt that have long plagued working mothers.
Yet both men and women agree that women still face unique challenges and discrimination. Nearly one-third of working women think they’d be paid more if they were male, and 20 percent of men think they’d be paid less if they were a woman. More than a quarter of women surveyed said they’ve experienced work-place discrimination. Elle doesn’t report how many men feel discriminated against, but a similar recent Gallup poll that found fewer women reporting discrimination still showed that women are about twice as likely as men to feel their sex holds them back from promotions and raises.
These findings suggest that discrimination may be a real problem in too many workplaces. But – while I don’t want to dismiss the women who say they’ve experienced discrimination – it seems likely that some of these results are driven by our continued national discussion about how women are short-changed at work. Certainly the conventional wisdom (especially with the constant misleading references to the wage gap) is that women are routinely paid less for the same work. This may encourage women more than men to assume they are paid less and to perceive disappointing events at work as a result of discrimination, rather than other factors.
Coverage of this poll also reveals the double standards frequently employed when talking about women in leadership positions. The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift, for example, seems horrified that many respondents (both male and female) admit believing that one reason why fewer women assume leadership positions is that women “aren’t tough enough.” She seems okay, however, with the findings that men are viewed as more “lazy,” “aggressive,” “bossy,” and “emotional,” and women as more “polite” and “compassionate.”
Describing women as innately more adept at consensus-building and as better listeners than men is PC, but one can never suggest that women’s softer touch could also be a weakness.
Prepare for a lot more of this doublespeak in the lead-up to another Hillary Clinton run: Kathleen Parker can postulate that Hillary Clinton will “save the world” since “women, if allowed to be fully equal to men, will bring peace to the planet.” But it would be doom for anyone to speculate negatively about how Clinton’s sex might influence her governing style.
Sadly, in public discussions about gender, sex differences are fair game only when they are to women’s advantage. That’s clearly an inaccurate way to approach the discussion, and it’s rather patronizing to women.
Real innate differences between men and women have an impact on aggregate statistics about the roles men and women tend to assume in society. Yet when we get down to the individual level, individual characteristics are going to have a far greater impact than one’s sex. Given Hillary Clinton’s long record in public life, it’s absurd to consider how being a woman will influence her actions. We know Hillary Clinton, her ideology, and her management style. We should judge her as an individual rather than as a generic member of her sex. That’s true for workers and for candidates for office. It seems that most bosses get that; political commentators should too.