Student Op-Eds

Women’s Issues Take Precedent in the New Year

Kelly McGrath ’15  Women in Leadership

This past week kicked off with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, which addressed women’s issues within our country. He stated that it is time for our country to move away from “Mad Men like policies,” and start focusing on ending gender inequalities. He addressed the difficulties that women face when it comes to balancing work and childrearing, as well as the continuing inequalities in the workforce.

One of the most powerful statements that President Obama made during his speech was that women make only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. Unfortunately, that statement has generated a lot of controversy.  Christine Hoff Sommer of the Daily Beast agrees that women only make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes when comparing the average income of men and women.  However, when comparing men and women within the same profession, who work the same number of hours, the difference in earnings is reduced to five cents.

In her article, Sommer examines one of the factors that cause the earnings disparity between men and women; comparing the college majors of women to the college majors of men, Sommer found that men overwhelmingly populate the most financially lucrative majors, which tend to be science, math and engineering, as opposed to the humanities. For example, 90% of mechanical engineering majors are men (earning $80,000 a year), while 97% of early childhood education majors are women (earning $36,000 a year).

Instead of focusing on controversial statistics, which can be easily manipulated and disparaged, it might be more fruitful to explore why women choose to go into less lucrative fields: is it the result of different interests, or is it the result of a sexist society that perpetuates the view that men are better at math and science and women are better in “helping” professions?

In contrast to stereotypical gender roles, Janet Yellen was sworn in as the first female Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve on Monday, February 3.  The Federal Reserve is the central bank of the United States and is responsible for monetary policy and the stability of our financial system. Her job is an incredibly important one given the present state of the United States economy.

Dr. Yellen serves as an extremely fine role model for women. The Washington Post discussed her groundbreaking career, including that she was the only woman in her economics Ph.D. program at Yale.  Upon graduation, she issued a statement saying, “Economics is not exclusively a man’s field.” The Post article also details her struggles as a female economist.  First, as one of two female faculty members in the Department of Economics at Harvard, she faced an overall attitude that women were inferior to men.  That attitude came from other women as well as from men.  In addition, women were expected to hide so-called “female” tendencies and to act more like the men. Second, despite her brilliance, Dr. Yellen spent most of her life being overshadowed by her more extroverted husband (who won a Nobel Prize in economics).  It was not until 1998 that she became recognized on a national level, with her study called “Explaining Trends in the Gender Wage Gap”, which examined the discrepancy in pay for women and men. Third, like many successful women of her generation, having a child complicated her life.  At the time, she was a Berkeley professor and the University had few women and no maternity leave policy.  Therefore, she felt she had no choice but to work throughout her son’s first year of life.

What might be the sweetest victory for women in Janet Yellen’s appointment to the Federal Reserve is that she beat out Larry Summers for the job. Larry Summers is also a brilliant economist and the President of Harvard University.  In a controversial speech in 2005, Summers suggested that women were underrepresented in science and engineering because of their lack of aptitude for those subjects “at the high end,” rather than because of societal pressures or discrimination.

One of the greatest achievements of Dr. Yellen’s appointment is that she did it on her own; she battled through to become a huge success. She serves as inspiration that women can break through societal barriers. While it is important to eliminate barriers for women, it is also important that women as individuals rise to the challenge of leading the lives they want to have.