To address gender gap, is it enough to lean In? | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

Does Sheryl Sandberg speak to American women?

Judging by the popularity of her best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” the answer would seem to be yes. But Ms. Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the richest women in America, ran into a wall of criticism for playing down the institutional constraints that make it so difficult for most women to advance their careers while having a rich family life, from impossible school schedules to inflexible business hours.

Even though Ms. Sandberg’s prescriptions may appear irrelevant to middle-class mothers who cannot afford an army of nannies, her call to action drew attention to a puzzle that affects women outside the set of potential candidates to lead a Fortune 500 company: how did women get stuck?

Interestingly, the policies that will most help improve the lot of women in the workplace may be focused not on women but on families and, specifically, on men.

In 2006 I wrote that the surge of women into the work force that transformed the American economy in the 20th century seemed to be petering out in the 21st, peaking well below the level for men.

Seven years later, women’s participation in the job market has continued to drift. Men’s employment has been declining for decades and took another severe hit in the recession. Still, 82.5 percent of men in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 have a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 69.5 percent of women do.

This stagnation is puzzling. In her Ely Lecture, delivered at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association seven years ago, Claudia Goldin of Harvard, one of the nation’s pre-eminent experts on the history of women in the workplace, rejected the theory that women’s labor supply had hit a ceiling, a “natural rate.”

The flattening of women’s labor participation, she suggested then, might simply reflect a shift in women’s typical childbearing age from their 20s to their 30s. As they aged further, women’s labor force participation would tick back up.

Today, Professor Goldin is not so sure. “I am reconsidering it now,” she told me.

Women’s labor supply is not the only thing to have plateaued. The narrowing of the gender wage gap slowed sharply in the mid-1990s. Over the last decade or so the typical wage of a woman in her prime has hovered around 80 percent of the typical wage for a man.

The wages of younger women have come closer to those of younger men. Older women, though, are still penalized for taking more time off and more part-time jobs to deal with the demands of motherhood.

As Ms. Sandberg noted, women’s chances of making it to the top are also stuck. Only 17 percent of directors and 14 percent of C-suite executives at Fortune 500 companies are women. All but 20 or so of their chief executives are men. At the other end of the spectrum of opportunity, 16.3 percent of women are officially poor, according to census figures, compared to 13.6 percent of men.

These dynamics are particularly perplexing considering the speed at which women are accumulating marketable skills.

In 1980, only 13.6 percent of adult women had graduated from college, compared to over a fifth of men. By last year, the gap had closed almost entirely: 30.6 percent of women and 31.4 percent of men had a college degree. And women will pass men soon: last year, 1.3 women enrolled to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college for every man who did so.

The trend is troubling. The slowdown in women’s labor supply is expected to dent the nation’s growth rate over the long term, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office. A study last year by Booz & Company estimated that raising women’s labor force participation to match men’s would add at least 5 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product, which currently stands at about $16 trillion a year.

Economists and policy makers suggest a number of ways to ease constraints that force many women to choose between a career and motherhood, and improve their incentives to work. This can mean requiring employers to provide more generous maternity leave, added government support for child care and tax law changes to lessen the penalty when a second earner goes to work in a family.

“You have a lot of people juggling these things at home,” Betsey Stevenson, a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told me. “We’ve got to stop talking about this as a separate women’s issue. This is worth doing for the sake of families and for the sake of the labor market.”

And yet while some of these policies show promise, there are no slam-dunk solutions.

Consider how the labor supply of American women has failed to keep up with those of other advanced nations. In a study released earlier this year, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University concluded that almost a third of the difference was because of the absence of family-friendly policies common in other rich nations, like mandatory maternity leave.

Professors Blau and Kahn also noted, however, that these policies could backfire, encouraging “women who would have otherwise had a stronger labor force commitment to take part-time jobs or lower-level positions.” They could encourage employer discrimination and “leave women less likely to be considered for high-level positions.”

Scandinavian countries have introduced use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave to encourage fathers to shoulder a larger share of the burden of child care. Norway has also set minimum quotas for women on corporate boards.

With more women on their boards, Norwegian companies behave differently. They are slower to fire workers. They post lower profits. But Norway’s quotas did not raise the numbers of female directors or executives much. Rather, a few highly qualified women were hired to serve on many boards.

Tellingly, the move to gender equality also seems to have stalled in countries with more progressive policies. The gender wage gap has remained roughly flat since the mid-1990s in many other rich countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Norway. In France it has even widened.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a political scientist at Princeton and former top State Department official who wrote a lengthy response to Ms. Sandberg, argues that gender equality, at the top and the bottom of the income scale, requires finishing the cultural revolution that broadened women’s acceptable role in society from stay-at-home mothers to breadwinners but stopped short of changing men.

“The way we view women changed radically,” said Professor Slaughter, who now heads the New America Foundation. “The way we view men not at all.”

Only when child care is accepted into the set of things that men do along with women, she says, will Americans achieve equality at work.

Perhaps. Alternatively, many women will work until they have children and leave, at least until their children are well on their way in their schooling. Studying survey data on personal well-being, Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago found that college-educated mothers with careers were no more satisfied with their lives, and might be less so, than stay-at-home college-educated mothers.

That hardly seems an ideal outcome for society, however — somewhat like letting sophisticated machinery lie idle and depreciate in plain sight. In any event, asking women to lean in is unlikely to change their minds.

E-mail: eporter@nytimes.com; Twitter: @portereduardo