5 Ways the Economy is Stalling Women’s Careers
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5 Ways the Economy is Stalling Women’s Careers

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5 Ways the Economy is Stalling Women’s Careers

Naomi Cahn is the Justice Anthony M. Kennedy distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law and the Family Law Center co-director. In 2017, Cahn received the Harry Krause Lifetime Achievement in Family Law Award from the University of Illinois College of Law, and in 2024, she was inducted into the Clayton Alumni Hall of Fame.

June Carbone is the Robina chair of law, science, and technology at the University of Minnesota Law School. Previously, she has served as the Edward A. Smith/Missouri chair of law, the constitution, and society at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and as the associate dean for professional development and presidential professor of ethics and the common good at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Nancy Levit is the associate dean for faculty and holds a curator’s professorship at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. Professor Levit has been voted Outstanding Professor of the Year five times by students. She has received the N.T. Veatch Award for distinguished research and creative activity and the Missouri Governor’s Award for teaching excellence.

Below, co-authors Naomi, June, and Nancy share five key insights from their new book, Fair Shake: Women and the Fight to Build a Just Economy. Listen to the audio version—read by Nancy—in the Next Big Idea App.

Fair Shake Naomi Cahn Nancy Levit June Carbone Next Big Idea Club

1. Women’s fortunes stalled when CEO compensation took off.

After two decades of progress in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the advancement of women college graduates stalled just as CEO salaries skyrocketed. We discovered that the two phenomena are linked.

The winner-take-all era starts with the increase in CEO compensation. In the 1950s and ’60s, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was about 20 to 1. Today, it’s a mind-blowing 399 to 1. This era moved on to the celebration of finance: 57 percent of the increases in wages all across the economy from the mid-80s through the financial crisis went to those in finance. Tech also took off by running fast and making those who broke things rich. We discovered that it wasn’t just that women were not in those fields—the women who had made it in lost ground—declining as a percentage of those fields. Women in computer science peaked in the mid-80s. Women in venture capital peaked at 10 percent in the late 90s, then dropped to 6 percent, and didn’t recover until the new tech boom after 2014. We sought to find out why.

2. The new economy celebrates those who can break the rules and get away with it.

There is a new corporate system, which has boosted CEO pay into the stratosphere and has created a winner-take-all (WTA) environment within firms. These firms have hyper competition, rewards for behaviors that produce short-term gains, and competitions for dominance that keep everyone insecure. They also contain systems in which the ambitious bend institutions serve their own interests by creating “new boys clubs” that outflank the restraints of the old order, enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else. The transformation in executive compensation brought back the late 19th-century robber baron mindset of no-holds-barred competition, individualism at the expense of institutions and community, and a zero-sum worldview in which those who “win” by any means necessary become the toast of the town.

We use the term “WTA economy” to describe the critical shift in the new economy as the ability of those at the top to take a much larger share of institutional resources for themselves. The WTA economy links CEO pay to share price and justifies giving outsized bonuses to the lieutenants who help them deliver what Wall Street wants. This is the period where CEO compensation goes through the roof. CEOs began to change the compensation structure for their key managers to emphasize massive bonuses to reward reductionist metrics like quarterly earnings. This was the period when selling opaque securities that no one understood made Wall Street rich and tanked the global economy.

It is no accident that Walmart became the subject of the largest sex discrimination suit in the country’s history; it is also the corporation that has been ranked as number one in the country for wage and hour theft.

“This was the period when selling opaque securities that no one understood made Wall Street rich and tanked the global economy.”

Winner-take-all workplaces pit people against each other for competitive bonuses. They reward the people who produce the desired numbers. They don’t inquire as to how those workers got the results. Practices like these are linked to hostile, bullying, and sexist climates, which increase gender disparities at work.

3. Toxic companies drive women out.

The secret to success in the new economy is breaking the rules and getting away with it—and women can’t get away with it. We’ve identified why.

Women face a triple bind. First, if women don’t compete on the same terms as men, they lose—they’re not in the game.

Second, if women do compete on the same terms as men, they’re punished more harshly for their sharp elbows or legal and ethical misdeeds. So, if women are trying to compete on the same terms, they also lose because when scandals need scapegoats, and women are convenient ones. In a fascinating article entitled When Harry Fired Sally, Harvard economist Mark Egan demonstrated that women who commit misconduct in finance are more likely to be fired and less likely to be rehired than men who commit even greater offenses. Men who are perceived to be narcissists by their subordinates are rated as more effective bosses. Women who are narcissists are rated as less effective bosses. They just can’t get away with these traits.

The third leg of the triple bind is that when women see that they can’t win on the same terms as men, they take themselves out of the game (if they haven’t been pushed out already). Powerful institutional factors make high-stakes jobs less attractive for women and push out many women who would make effective leaders. When women see what the terms of competition are, some take themselves out of the running.

4. Women advance by playing by the rules—and that pays off.

Those who play by the rules do better in the long run—and they happen to be women. The ten percent of CEOs who are women are outperforming their male peers. Forbes reported this year that “companies with women executives are 30 percent more likely to outperform other companies.”

Women who get to the top executive ranks do so by rising through the ranks, working hard, and winning the confidence of people who know them. Women who get to the top are more likely to stick with a single company, where they are valued by people who know the quality of their work. They are less likely to be flashy, charismatic, savior CEOs who impose their will on a company by sheer force of personal dominance. Moreover, those in top executive positions who promote “collaboration, nurturing, and relationship-building . . . traditionally considered female qualities of leadership” are those executives who are succeeding.

“The appearance of success can justify excessive rewards in a system that doesn’t ask too many questions about how appearances are created.”

If women are so successful, why aren’t there more of them in the top executive ranks? The new winner-take-all economy celebrates the charismatic CEO, likely to be an amoral narcissist. Elon Musk became the richest man in the world when, in a two-week time span, he beat expectations on the number of Teslas his company was able to produce and weathered a callback of hundreds of thousands of his cars for product quality defects. The stock market rewarded one and didn’t care about the other. The appearance of success can justify excessive rewards in a system that doesn’t ask too many questions about how appearances are created.

This all speaks to the importance of keeping women in the game. And perhaps because they can’t get away it, the greater presence of women in a company is associated with ethical and transparent practices. In the corporate space, a comprehensive Nasdaq report found that: “[G]ender-diverse boards or audit committees are associated with: more transparent public disclosure . . . ; better reporting discipline by management; a lower likelihood of manipulated earnings through earnings management; . . . and a lower likelihood of securities fraud.”

We associate women and feminine values with playing by the rules—and succeeding.

5. Change the system, not the women.

A company’s inability to recruit and retain women is a very important tell. Abusive workplaces drive women out. Workplaces with practices like those we have been describing—workplaces that pit employees against each other—are workplaces that demonstrate greater gender disparities. These workplaces care little about supporting families or employee well-being. Both female and male employees at these organizations experience substantial burnout and high turnover rates.

CEOs use high-stakes bonus systems to bypass traditional restraints and produce immediate results—whether higher reported earnings or student test scores. The new system that makes winning the competition for bonuses the primary source of status tends to look the other way at how the successful produce their impressive numbers. The long-term well-being diminishes in importance.

“The companies involved in corporate wrongdoing are also workplaces hostile to women, and the link is intentional.”

It is critical to connect the dots between the abuse of power and the treatment of women. The winner-take-all economy breeds abuse of power for the benefit of those who can break the rules —the law, ethical norms, and common decency—and get away with it. In many workplaces, it is work-as-masculinity-contest-culture. The companies involved in corporate wrongdoing are also workplaces hostile to women, and the link is intentional.

Collective action and sunlight are the best responses to the WTA economy. Women fight back most effectively when they expose the ugliness. This was the #MeToo movement. For centuries, women suffered indignities and assaults in silence. Silence has never helped women. In 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a term that activist Tarana Burke developed in 2006—#MeToo. Within a year, there were 19 million #MeToo tweets. It was a call for action and accountability rather than a source of shame. #MeToo involved turning the tables on those who have used the accumulation of power to ensure their own invulnerability. So, #MeToo served as a form of jujitsu, turning the power of celebrated men to act with impunity into a weapon against them, using their very celebrity to topple them. #MeToo had a stunning impact. In 2018, the New York Times documented over 200 men who had been brought down by reports of misconduct, many of whom were then replaced by women.

The real fight is between people stuck in zero-sum competitions with negative consequences and those who see positive outcomes. Precisely because women can’t win the rigged game, they are more likely to embrace what had historically been called “feminine values”: caring, nurturing, and loyalty to people and institutions. And as recent economic data indicate, those values can also drive longer-term business success. Women have been at the forefront of advancing win-win strategies. The community is more than the sum of its parts, and we are all better off when the community is stronger.

To listen to the audio version read by co-author Nancy Levit, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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