Perpetuating the Gap

Perpetuating the Gap:
Why U.S. Legislation Failed to Achieve Equality of the Sexes

February 2013

Women in America have yet to obtain enough positions in power in the legislature and the board room to enact the kind of deep change that will attain social and professional equality for them. Certain Scandinavian countries have pushed for this parity by using quota systems to enforce more equal representation for women in these areas of leadership. However, in America, forces of historical oppression, cultural biases about gender, and resistance to the feminist movement have all worked against these efforts. Women’s role as mother further complicates their ability to make progress, leaving a wage gap between men and women in every age and ethnic demographic. Despite legislation to regulate equal treatment of men and women, sexual discrimination still exists at every level of society.

Perpetuating Sex Discrimination

Illusion of Progress. In her article For Women in America, Equality is Still an Illusion, Jessica Valenti argues that “between pop culture and politics, women are being taught that everything is fine and dandy” (Valenti, 2010). However, the statistics on violence against women in this country tells another, more deeply misogynistic story. It may be true that oppression of women takes a more overt form in many other countries, but that does not mean that women have achieved all the equal opportunity they could here at home. Legislation in the twentieth century may have made progress, but the laws “don’t prevent one million from being raped [annually], female troops from being assaulted, or the continued legal discrimination against gay and transgender people” (ibid).

A historical perspective illuminates the long arm of oppression of women by the patriarchy. The inertia of history is so strong, in fact, that some theorize that equality for women in America would take another 400 years to take place at current rates. Many people are still alive who remember the narrow cultural roles assigned to women in the 1950s and 1960s, “where women were told they should spend every waking moment devoting themselves to husband and family” (Smith, 2005, p. 107). But, the patriarchy’s oppression of women stretches even farther back in history. Some place it at the dawn of the nuclear family model, a relatively recent cultural invention that served to allocate property rights and was bolstered by ideas of “romantic love” popularized in Europe in the feudal era (ibid, pp. 43-4). Furthermore, the popular Abrahamic religions across the world – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their off-shoots – all contain powerful belief systems about women as subservient, second-class citizens (Winkler, 2013). Against such a cultural tide, women continue to struggle.

Gendered Jobs. Although many use the term gender to mean the biological sex of a person, gender is really a social construct. It is a cultural assignation of certain values, qualities, and roles based according to biological sex (ibid). It says, for example, that women are soft and nurturing and take roles like nurses and pre-school teachers. And, it may say that men are hard, dominant, and take roles of leadership.

Gender assumptions make it difficult for women to make progress towards equality in the workplace and society. They exert a powerful pressure for women to conform to a feminine ideal determined by culture. They underlie the assumptions employers make about women. And, to a powerful extent, they influence women’s ideas about their selves.

Cultural Backlash. One must not ignore the cultural backlash against the feminist movement in America. Feminists struggled, and continue to struggle, against widely held views that being pro-woman means being anti-man or “man haters” (Hooks, 2000, p. 68). Mass media focused on sensationalizing “anti-male factions within the feminist movement” and “intensified anti-feminist sentiment among men” by “appealing to homophobia” (ibid). Although these factions made up a minority of feminist activists, “it has been difficult to change the image of feminist women as man-hating” (ibid).

This cultural trend only serves to downplay and denigrate the goals of social equity and equality pursued by the generational waves of the feminist movement. In response, Hooks calls for a “feminist vision which embraces feminist masculinity, which loves boys and men and demands on their behalf every right that we desire for girls and women” (ibid). This vision stands in stark contrast to “patriarchal masculinity” which “teaches men that their sense of self and identity… resides in their capacity to dominate others” (ibid).


Double Duty. The terms double work and second shift describe the role of motherhood in the lives of working women. Performing in the labor force for part of their day, they also care for their children and families when not at work (Winkler, 2013). Motherhood has negatively affected women’s efforts to gain equality with men in the workplace. They may be hired less than men because employers do not want to lose productivity if the woman leaves to bear children. Employers promote them less frequently than men for the same reason. Women often hit a glass ceiling in the workforce, an upper limit on their career advancement, while “men are more likely to obtain management positions than are women” (ibid).

One must not discount the incredible economic and time pressure placed on working mothers. Single mothers in particular earn “only 69 percent of a single dad’s dollar (even counting the average $3,000 a year that half of them manage to collect in child support)” (Murphy, 2005, p. 29). Now, subtract from that the exorbitant costs of daycare, and you will find many mothers in a vicious circle: barely breaking even, they must hold a job to pay for the daycare they need to keep working the job to pay for the daycare. It’s easy to see why the second wave of feminism in the USA largely sought to free wives and mothers from these traditional roles and gain footholds in the professional world. Struggling in poverty with hardly an hour to herself, a working mother has little time or resources to pursue an agenda of social equity. She is too busy trying to survive.

Domestic and Foreign Legislation. In the USA, the federal Family Leave and Medical Act sought to give laborers more rights in taking care of newborn children, allowing up to twelve weeks of leave for new parents. However, the Act does not help as much as it could. Although guaranteeing a return to the job for those on leave, it only grants unpaid leave. Furthermore, it only covers workers in companies of fifty or more workers (Rowe-Finkbeiner, 2004, p. 162). At the state level, California passed legislation providing “six weeks of paid leave to workers who take time off to care for a new child” and seriously ill family members. Yet as of 2002, it is the only one of 50 states to pass such a law (ibid, p. 164).

More favorable legislation seems unlikely until women can secure a greater share of leadership positions in both business and Congress. “The tipping point for women to become changemakers is when they 25 to 30 percent of the seats, either in government or business” according to Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders (Burk, 2006, p. 58). In the USA, however, women only hold about 15 percent of Congressional seats and seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies (ibid).

Scandinavian countries have made efforts to close this leadership gap by instituting certain quotas. While the USA busied itself introducing the lukewarm FLMA in 1986, political parties in Norway were aggressively instituting gender quotas in government appointments (ibid, p.57). This increased the percentage of women in legislative roles to nearly 40 percent or more. Norway’s minister of children and equality Karita Bekkemellem calls these quotas “very forceful affirmative action” to make sure that “women will have a place where the power is, where leadership takes place in this society” (ibid). This affirmative action is also called equal outcomes in these countries, another name for making sure underrepresented minorities move into positions of social equality previously denied them (Winkler, 2013).

Wage Gap

In 2010, the Washington Post published an article with the optimistic title Gender Pay Gap is the Smallest on Record. It reported that the wage gap between men and women in the USA had dramatically closed over a ten year period. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Women earned 82.8% of the median weekly wage of men in the second quarter of 2010, up from 76.1% for the same period a decade ago and the highest ever recorded” (Cauchon, 2010).

Before breaking out the champagne to celebrate, however, one must consider the economic factors driving this shift. Robert Drago, research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, identifies the recent recession as the culprit: “Men have been losing jobs at a faster rate than women in the recession because of troubles in manufacturing, construction and other industries” (ibid). On the upside, the same article shows that over the same ten-year period, all age groups of women saw increases to their income (after adjusting for inflation), accompanied by a trend towards more women in high-paying professional jobs.

Categorized by ethnicity, women made greater gains in income than men over the same period, according to this study. However, statistics from the Wage Project show that in every major ethnic category, men still bring in substantially higher wages than women. The gap appears to be greatest between white men and white women, though blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all show wage disparity (Wage Project, 2013). But, race is not the only factor. When compared by education level and age, men still have higher incomes than women (ibid).


One might expect that nearly a century of progressive legislation since women gained suffrage in America would have achieved some parity between the sexes. Although improvements have happened, much work remains to be done. The forces of history, cultural ideas about gender, and the backlash against the feminist movement have all helped perpetuate the discrimination against women. If women are to obtain equal opportunity in the workplace and in society at large, they will need to occupy more of the places of power in the legislature and the board room. Their roles as mothers and caretakers to their families often work against them by lessening the opportunities for professional advancement they need to make this dream a reality. Only when they reach a certain critical mass in these positions can they powerfully shape the societies which have held them down for so long.


Burk, M. (Summer, 2006). The 40 percent rule. Ms Magazine, pp. 57-8.

Cauchon, D. (14 September, 2010). Gender pay gap smallest on record. USA Today.

Hooks, B. (2000). Feminist masculinity. In Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics, Ch. 12. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Murphy, E. (2005). The personal cost of the wage gap. In Getting even: why women don’t get paid like men – and what to do about it. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Rowe-Finkbeiner, K. (2004). Between a rock and a hard place: the current state of motherhood. In The f word: feminism in jeopardy – women, politics and the future. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

Smith, S. (2005). Women and socialism: essays on women’s liberation. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Valenti, J. (21 February, 2010). For women in America equality is still an illusion. Washington Post.

Who is affected by the wage gap? The Wage Project Organization. Accessed 20 February, 2013.

Winkler, P. (2013). Module 1 Lecture. POS 355, NAU Course materials.

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