David Adler: Breaking through the glass ceiling has hit a brick wall

July 18, 2013 

The Equality Revolution in the workplace, ignited 50 years ago with the publication of Betty Friedan's best-seller, "The Feminine Mystique," and punctuated by President John F. Kennedy's signature on the potentially transformative Equal Pay Act, has stalled. Some experts believe that it has hit a wall.

The renowned gender-studies scholar, Stephanie Coontz, wrote last February in a N.Y. Times Op-Ed: "Women are still paid less than men at every educational level in every job category." Nationally, the participation of women on the boards of directors in Fortune 500 companies is less than 20 percent.

What is an American problem is also an Idaho problem. The salaries of female workers in the private sector in the Gem State lag well behind their male counterparts. A glance at the number of women in Idaho businesses who can boast the title of vice president reveals a gender inequality that is mystifying. Significant barriers prevent the ascent of women in the workplace.

Progress has been made since 1963, but the long slow climb reflects a prejudice in the workplace. The tremendous success of the United States is, in many ways, attributable to the nature of our economic and political system which, in the words of Warren Buffett, "unleashes human potential to an extraordinary degree." But, as he pointed out last spring, imagine how much more successful our nation might be if we utilized the other 50 percent of our population.

The continued barriers, obstacles and glass ceilings in America, which have, in many fields relegated women to the sidelines, reflects a myriad of factors: individual stubbornness, old-fashioned attitude within corporations, archaic beliefs in the workplace, and blatant sexism, among other factors. There remains, unfortunately, a pattern of discrimination against women. Buffett's observation is illuminating: "At the moment I emerged from my mother's womb . . . my possibilities dwarfed those of my siblings, for I was a boy!" The failure of America to employ the brains and talents of women is baffling.

For women, hurdles and challenges remain. Real solutions remain elusive. The failure of Congress to provide genuine political reforms to improve the status of women is frustrating. Clearly, continued discrimination against women requires close examination and extended discussion.

In an effort to seek better understanding and answers to these problems, the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will host some of the nation's most successful women to address these and other issues in a major conference on women and leadership, Sept. 4-6. "Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century," will address and investigate the challenges and hurdles women have overcome and the work that remains to create what Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has called the opportunity for all women "to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability."

Justice O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, will be presented on the first night of the conference with the second annual Andrus Leadership Award. "Justice O'Connor is one of the great trailblazers in American history," observed former Gov. Cecil Andrus, chairman of the center that bears his name. She "is an inspiration to all Americans - men and women."

The capacity to inspire, a rare but much needed quality, is critical if America is to surmount its historical practice of discrimination against women. The equality movement requires a renewed commitment to removing the challenges and hurdles that litter the path to greater leadership opportunities for women in business and industry. Among other things, the denial of equal pay for equal work, the slow crawl that characterizes the pace of promotions of women to higher posts in the world of business are unacceptable. The path to reform requires illumination.

The Andrus Center's conference on women and leadership will feature Justice O'Connor, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, Coontz and Bonnie-McElveen Hunter, former Bush administration ambassador and current chairwoman of the American Red Cross Board of Governors.

David Adler is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holds appointment as the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs. He also serves as an adjunct professor of law in the University of Idaho College of Law, where he teaches courses on the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

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