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.

It's also crucial that men recognize the value and importance of women meeting their full potential at work and that male managers become more tolerant of men taking time off. Bertrand, Goldin, and Katz find that when men interrupt their careers six years after getting an MBA, the punishment in lower earnings for taking time off is actually greater than for women. It's hard to imagine that a workplace full of Sheryl Sandbergs allowing that to happen.

Why Sandberg's Solutions Won't Make More Sheryl Sandbergs
On the policy side, Sandberg supports the full gamut of family friendly social policies: subsidized child care, expanded parental leave, and the rest. But how much do these policies really help women at the very top?

Overall, women with high-earning spouses work more than most women -- in fact, they work as much as most men. But if they have children, they often cut back dramatically or drop out of the work-force altogether, leaving their husbands as the sole breadwinners. (Sandberg and Mayer, among thousands of others, are obvious exceptions to this rule.) The reason these women drop out of the work force or cut back isn't because they can't afford childcare. It's because they choose (or their husbands pressure them) to take care of the kids. These women might not be helped much by subsidized child care, since they're already quite wealthy. But they would be helped by supportive husbands and supportive companies.

More importantly, the same policies that make women more likely to work around the world also make them less likely to advance to executive positions in some countries. Research by Cornell economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn shows that raising the labor participation of women can be a double-edged sword.

They found that between 1990 and 2007, rich countries increased female participation when they implemented expanded parental leave (beyond the 12 weeks of unpaid leave afforded in the U.S.), the right to demand a part-time schedule, or expanded public funding of child care. If U.S. adopted all three policies, we would climb six spots in the global rankings to 11th, they estimated.

Although women are more likely to work in other rich countries, they are less likely to be managers than in the U.S. This sounds impossible, but it's actually explained by one of the above ideas: The mainstreaming of part-time work.

Women in other rich countries are twice as likely to work part-time -- 26 percent of female workers are part-time in other OECD countries vs. 13 percent here -- often thanks to part-time protections in those countries. But there's a downside. Employers might leave all women off the executive track if they suspect female workers are more likely to switch to part-time, eventually. Since they can't tell in advance which women will switch, employers discriminate broadly. This creates a kind of paradox: While female work in other countries has increased relative to the U.S., it's come at the expense of female advancement, according to Blau and Kahn. They estimated that two-thirds of the increase in female work that would come from more generous U.S. work policies (e.g. leave, part-time, and child-care) would be part-time.

The last important fact about women in the U.S. labor force is that, while there are still very few women at the tippy top, there are relatively more female managers and professionals. Looking at data form 1998 and 2010 for the U.S. and ten other OECD countries, Blau and Kahn found that "women and men in the United States were virtually equally likely to be managers," compared to half as likely in the ten other countries. For professional jobs in the U.S., excluding non-college teachers and nurses, "women were equally likely as men to be employed" and there was a 17 to 25 percent shortfall outside the U.S.

While these high level data can't speak to the distribution of women within the managerial ranks and within heavily male professions like law, consulting, and finance, it does show that a more accommodating social policy mix is not a panacea for female leadership. For these ideas to really work, men and women have to make them work. They all need to lean in.