Yes. Things are better for women, but much more needs to be done
By ROBYN BERKLEY
The Equal Rights Amendment has been a dream of women for almost 100 years. Conceptualized around the time women first secured the vote in the early 1900s, the ERA came close to becoming reality in the 1970s before it was defeated by a disinformation campaign by conservative women. Is it still necessary or good for business? The answer is a resounding YES.
Even with civil rights legislation passed in 1964, women still struggle for equality in pay, workplace advancement and respect in the workplace. Women are still not considered as capable as are men for many positions. In fact, sex discrimination was a last-minute addition to the 1964 legislation in hopes of derailing the legislation, not enhancing it. I’d be remiss in arguing that things have not gotten better for women, but after 50-plus years, I think we all expected things to be vastly improved.
Where have we seen improvements? There are more female CEOs and more women in political office and other male dominated fields. For example, during the 92nd Congress (1971-1973), there were 13 women in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. By the 110th Congress (2007-2009), there were 78 women in the House of Representatives, and 16 in the Senate. Katharine Graham was the first woman to join the ranks of the Fortune 500 list of CEOs in 1972. In 2017, 27 women led Fortune 500 companies. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school, but it’s taken until 2017 for women to exceed men in medical school enrollment, despite the fact there are slightly more women than men living in the U.S., according to the 2010 census. Women now represent 50.7 percent of matriculated students in medical schools, and 50.8 percent of the U.S. population.
While this shows female advancement in important positions, women still lag behind men in terms of pay and advancement. The flip side of lauding that 27 women head up Fortune 500 firms is that they ONLY represent 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions while women represent approximately 47 percent of the workforce. And, women are still paid 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. The pay differential is still substantial across most industries, despite legislation ordering men and women who do substantively the same job to make the same amount.
The preponderance of sexual harassment that has occurred since the courts clarified that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination is also evidence of the disparity women encounter in the workplace. Women represent 79 percent of the sexual harassment victims in the workplace. More profoundly, as of 2017, the cost to organizations was over $46 million. This number doesn’t include the cost for litigation, or cases settled out of court. The #MeToo movement illustrates how ingrained the problem is and how difficult it’s been to eliminate these workplace issues.
Do we still need the Equal Rights Amendment? We do, and recent events in Illinois help bring this back to the nation’s attention. The ERA is necessary to remedy the consistent workplace inequalities women face. One can argue, since the law hasn’t changed much of what women experience, an amendment would not offer much more. But I disagree. An amendment is the basis upon which statutory law is developed and enforced. Clearly, the law has not been sufficient to bring necessary change. Providing a stronger foundation is key.
Along with providing a strong legal foundation, the ERA underscores the value of a diverse and fair workforce. Research shows diversity helps employees learn to navigate conflict and be open to new ideas. There are implicit biases that exist in our society to which even those with the best of intentions fall victim. Just take a moment and imagine what a medical doctor looks like. Did your doctor look like a white male in a lab coat? As a woman with a doctorate degree, that is the image that enters my head. An implicit bias is an unconscious association our brain makes with certain images. We all experience some degree of implicit bias. The ERA helps us overcome this. It doesn’t fix the challenges completely, but it provides a foundation on which to enforce the law and expose people to different people, ideas and experiences.
The fears of those who opposed the ERA did not disappear when the amendment did not pass. Those opposed feared that women would not be able to remain homemakers, or that they would be drafted to war, or that unisex bathrooms would create an unsafe environment. These fears are not based on facts. In reality, the ERA doesn’t compel women to careers or vocations they do not want. Rather, it compels organizations to treat men and women the same in their chosen vocations. Yes, women may get drafted, but women currently serve in all branches of the military across all ranks, in combat as well as administrative positions. As for bathrooms, we know this is an issue as our nation grapples with transgender rights, but I believe that the ERA may even help facilitate the rights of those who are transgender, protecting their right to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity.
Because the ERA promotes and codifies diversity, it is good for business. Organizations will have a greater pool from which to secure the best employee for the job. If you already believe in the value of diversity, the ERA simply secures that. There will be no ambiguity for those who need to make key decisions. A person’s sex is not relevant to their ability to do a job well. It has been too long and it is time to make the final push to secure equal rights for all.
Robyn Berkley, PhD, SPHR, is an associate professor in the SIUE School of Business’ Department of Management and Marketing.