Opinion

Empowering women to overcome the continued existence of the glass ceiling

Posted January 17

The "glass ceiling" is simply a label for the barrier that often keeps women from rising to the upper rungs of power across the U.S., regardless of their qualifications or achievements. The term was first used in the media in the late 1970s.

Today the glass ceiling reflects the gaps in pay, retirement savings and investment confidence that women in the workforce face. Women working full time in the United States in 2015 typically were paid 20 percent less than what men were paid for the same job. The good news is that the gap has narrowed since the late 1970s. This is due largely to women’s progress in education and workforce participation. This 20 percent gap is something that we do expect will diminish but not completely go away.

There is also a pay gap by state. States like New York and Florida average around an 11 percent difference, while states such as Louisiana and Wyoming have a 35 percent difference. While the pay gap influences women from all backgrounds, it particularly hits older women and women of color. Hispanic women were only paid 54 percent of what white men were paid in 2015, although much of this difference is influenced by the type of work that each do.

Another important issue for women relates to their financial wellness and retirement savings opportunities. A majority of women take at least some sort of career break in their life. This life decision, mixed with the facts that women’s health care costs and life expectancies are likely higher, requires women to be even better individual financial planners. Because of this, women should save 13 percent of their income to offset the imbalance, as opposed to men, who are expected to save 11 percent. Women need to save more, start saving earlier and invest more effectively.

There is an investment confidence gap and a measurable financial literacy gap that appears to affect women more than men. In nearly every culture, men show much more confidence in their financial decision-making than women. In many cultures, men are more financially literate than women. It’s not that women can’t have the necessary investment competence; women have made undeniable progress in this category. However, in the world of finance, women need to practice their investing to become more competent and confident.

The glass ceiling is real. At the same time, it is less of an obstacle than it used to be. One of the reasons for the change is education. In the U.S. last year, about 47.6 percent of medical school graduates were female, a rate followed closely by the 47.3 percent female law school graduates and 35.6 percent female MBA graduates. Each of these numbers is significantly higher than just a few years ago. Generally, earnings go up as years of education increase, and this is true for both men and women. More education is usually a useful tool for increasing position and income. For some women, learning to negotiate for equal pay when it is not offered is worth the time and effort.

Fortunately, more employers are focusing on pay equity and flexible work environments that allow employees to have a better work/life balance.

Despite the advances women have made in the workforce, the glass ceiling is still in place. The persistence of the glass ceiling impacts women, at the very least, through gaps in pay, retirement savings and investment confidence. Women and men working together have the capacity to significantly reduce these gaps.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Sidney Draughon, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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