Matriarchy My… Assets!

The ascent of women. The decline of men. The smarter sex. The richer sex.

So sayeth the pundits and pontificators – as media would have us believe that women rule and men drool. Or, at the very least, testosterone is tumbling and matriarchy is on the horizon.

Matriarchal America?

I don’t think so.

Am I contemplating the “having it all” debate? No. Am I reopening the feminism files on the topic of women needing men emotionally or sexually?

Not that either.

Something bigger. More insidious.

I’m talking about you, me, your mother, your father, your spouse, your ex-louse, and your kiddos who may be heading to college. I’m talking opportunity. I’m talking money.

Real Numbers, Real Context

Author Stephanie Coontz addresses recent pop culture claims projecting the rise of women as imminent, and likewise, bemoaning the demise of men. But rather than latch on to media sound bites, she slips relevant data into thoughtful context, as she highlights women’s socioeconomic progress as well as stagnation.

In her New York Times article, “The Myth of Male Decline,” Ms. Coontz offers evidence of a cultural transformation – it’s undeniable that women have made strides in 40 years – while dismantling the belief that women are becoming the richer sex, women are outpacing men in educational accomplishments, and women are gaining ground at the expense of men.

More precisely, she situates statistics in real world reasoning, rather than posturing in isolation. And the result is a more complete and plausible picture of where we find ourselves, and how far we haven’t come.

Cagey Comparisons, Apples to Oranges

Ms. Coontz presents data and conclusions that consider a broad range of factors. Consideration is given to geographic area, the demographics of that area, age groups, marital status, and extremely important – whether or not women are childless.

For example, she takes on the “women are now richer than men” myth, calling attention to single childless 20-something women in select locations characterized by

the demographic anomaly that such areas have exceptionally large percentages of highly educated single white women and young, poorly educated, low-wage Latino men. Earning more than a man with less education is not the same as earning as much as an equally educated man.

Well now. There’s nothing like a frame of reference to enrich our understanding of reality.

Marital Status, Parenting Factors

What differentiates this article from what we usually see is the detail, not to mention sufficient word count to cover it with intelligence. And so Ms. Coontz debunks the ascending-descending aspects of gender myth by including factors too frequently glossed over, such as:

  • age and ethnicity
  • marital and parental status
  • educational level
  • metropolitan area
  • industry segments
  • and more.

She states:

Among never-married, childless 22- to 30-year-old metropolitan-area workers with the same educational credentials, males out-earn females in every category…

And follows that with:

… a 2010 Catalyst survey found that female M.B.A.’s were paid an average of $4,600 less than men in starting salaries and continue to be outpaced by men in rank and salary growth throughout their careers, even if they remain childless.

Did you get that? Even if they remain childless.

How Bad Is This Picture?

Not referenced in this analysis are workers who aren’t associated with employers.

You know. People like me. Maybe like you, too.

We’re self-employed, contracting, consulting, and freelancing.

Some of us, by choice; some of us by circumstance.

How many millions are excluded from the data as a result? Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare female contractor rates and earnings to their male counterparts, all other things being equal? What if we were to do the same in the arts?

How much worse is the picture, if we could account for these exclusions? And what if the break-down looked at women, age, divorced status, and earnings?

Is it really any wonder that some of us are worried sick, much of that worry traceable to extreme and prolonged financial stress?

No – I haven’t forgotten that women are typically behind the curve when it comes to negotiating salaries. Maria Gamb’s Forbes coverage on the subject comes to mind – a very worthy read that reflects room for improvement.

Surprise, Surprise: Women Are (Still) Paid Less Than Men

Among the conclusions presented in the Times article:

In every age group women, on average, are still paid less than men. The range is 73 cents on the male dollar to a high of 91 cents. And incidentally, when I read that statistic I was momentarily pleased. I thought “no doubt, the most experienced women are finally catching up to the experienced men.”

But this isn’t the case.

In fact, the 91 cents on the dollar falls to the 25- to 34-year-old group. Somewhat experienced, yes, but unlikely to be those who are potentially running the show – or even close. Moreover, aren’t these the prime child-rearing years?

So just how large is that pool of women that is being considered?

The next “best” earnings appear in the 20- to 24-year-old age group (women earn 88% of what men earn), followed by the 16- to 19-year-old group at 87 cents on the male dollar. But given the age range, aren’t these likely low-paying jobs?

The worst performing age group comes in at 73 cents on the male dollar. Care to guess where?

Exactly where I thought women would be doing best – arguably in their prime – age 45 to 54. Theoretically, working mothers in this age group would be Empty Nesters, or close, so what should we conclude from this data? The 55- to 64-year-old group is the second worst, at 75 cents on the dollar. Again I ask, what conclusions might we consider to explain this?

Advocating vs Reporting

Ms. Coontz is not advocating; to a large extent this article implicitly suggests we all calm down – those who recoil at the thought of women in power, those who are overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues of gender equity, those who are lamenting the media-hyped disregard for our much loved men.

Ms. Coontz is presenting data in a comprehensive and rational fashion, so we can examine (and continue to redress) socioeconomic disarray, rather than persisting in gutless gender warfare.

But the numbers? We should let them stick, reflecting a strange multi-generational brew of action and apathy. As Ms. Coontz states:

Despite their relative improvement, women’s average earnings are still lower than men’s and women remain more likely to be poor.

If you read nothing else on the Times this week, read this Stephanie Coontz article. Read it not only for its content which affects us all, but for the thoughtful journalistic approach that encourages us to consider context.

Data sources and references appear on the originating New York Times article.