America's Working-Woman Problem—and How to Fix It

Sheryl Sandberg and the experts agree on the policies. But there's a catch: The same ideas that can help more women work could keep the best women from advancing.

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The rise of the women in the workforce is one of the last half-century's greatest stories. In the last four decades, the number of full-time working women in the U.S. tripled from about 14 million to more than 43 million. Their entry in the workforce has added an estimated 2 percentage points per year to GDP growth.

But there is also a sense of stalling out. In 1990, the U.S. had the sixth-highest share of women working in the OECD. By 2010, our percentage had hardly changed, and 11 countries leapfrogged us. The stagnation is stark at the top. Despite the fact that women earn the majority of bachelor's degrees in the country, only 21 of 500 Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Just 14 percent of executive officers in companies, 17 percent of board members, and less than 20 percent of elected officials are female. And while 43 percent of White House appointees are women, Obama is merely matching the gender diversity of Bill Clinton's picks.

Into the breach steps, of course, Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In. Sandberg's book is much more than a memoir. It's a compendium of economic and social science research, and the research is on Sandberg's side. But it also indicates that the very social programs that have helped other countries raise female employment might hurt America's smartest, most ambitious women.

3 Reasons for the Wage Gap
Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence F. Katz, of the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, studied the wages of a group of graduates from the Booth School of Business of the University of Chicago between 1990 and 2006. These are close analogs to Sandberg, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1995.

The economists found a gender wage gap that started immediately after graduation and got wider. Women earned $115,000 on average the year after school, and $250,000 nine years out, while men earned $130,000 on average at graduation and $400,000 nine years out. The vast majority of that gap - 81 percent, to be exact -- could be explained by three factors: (1) performance and course selection in business school; (2) differences in frequency and length of career interruptions; and (3) differences in hours-worked-per-week.

You could sum up most of (2) and (3) in one word. Children.

The initial gap is largely due to men taking more courses in finance and getting slightly higher grades, letting them enter higher paying consulting and finance sectors at slightly higher rates. However, 15 and more years after graduation, the subsequent gender gap "is mainly a consequence of gender differences in career interruptions and weekly hours worked." The penalties for having children are stark. Any time off hurts earnings, and women are far more likely than men to interrupt their careers. Over those first 15 years in the workforce, the female MBAs with children worked 8 months less than the average man, while women without children worked about 45 days less.

In short, women with children worked 24 percent less than women without children. Women who didn't have kids and didn't take time off saw relatively small wage differentials from men over their careers.

Childless, at the Top
Although many women at the very top of organizations, including Sandberg, are married and have children, it's striking how many do not. The last three female Supreme Court nominees were all childless. So are Janet Napolitano and Condoleeza Rice. Virginia Rometty, the CEO of IBM, has no children. Erin Callan, briefly CEO of Lehman who left a few months before the company's bankruptcy in September, 2008, wrote an op-ed for the Times last week, lamenting how her total devotion to her job had robbed her of a real life. She too has no children. Even the second most famous woman in tech, Marissa Mayer, who announced she was pregnant the same day she was named Yahoo! CEO, said that her maternity leave "will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it." After she returned to work, she built a nursery next to her office.

For a working woman, it was as close to not having a kid while still having one as possible.

So, how does Sandberg do it? By making her husband a true partner in parenting and being as flexible at work as possible. Sandberg famously works several hours from home before 9 AM and after 5:30. She also insists that women find partners truly committed to their careers and accept that they can't be "perfect" parents. She demonstrates her own somewhat harried and chaotic approach to parenting -- she more or less proudly admits to not knowing to dress her son in a green shirt on St. Patrick's Day and expresses admiration for a woman who dresses her kids for school before they go to bed. For women at the top, a personal commitment to continuing to work full-time and a partner who supports it may do more than any new social program.

As more and more women are in charge - Sandberg has never directly reported to a woman -- workplace cultures can start to change to accept more flexible schedules for people other than their indispensable senior executives. When Sandberg was pregnant with her child while at Google, she would have to trek across the parking lot on her swollen feet. Yahoo, where her husband then worked, provided parking for pregnant women near the building. So Sandberg told Google co-founder Sergey Brin that they needed pregnancy parking. "[Brin] agreed immediately, noting that he had never thought about it before," she writes.

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Matt Zeitlin is a writer who has been published in The Daily, The New Republic, and The Daily Beast.

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