The World Watches Our Signals

September 25, 2006
Published in Crain’s Detroit Business, Sept. 25, 2006.

Do you know the expression, “Let’s put the moose on the table”?  I had a boss at Ford Motor Company who once handed out small moose heads with orange antlers to his Operating Committee. His message?  Put the big stuff – the moose we’d prefer to ignore -- on the table, where we could collectively analyze its impact and take action.    

The Gender Gap.  That’s the moose that 400 hundred women leaders from 28 countries put on the world table this spring in Madrid.  I was privileged to be one of two women from Michigan and 120 from the U.S. to attend the 2000 global conference of the International Women’s Forum. Its focus -- Bridging the Leadership Gap:  Empowering Families, Business and Civil Society.

The conference began with a report by the World Economic Forum on how women are doing in 58 countries.  As I listened, I was struck by how similar the obstacles facing women all over the world are to those we still have not solved here in the U.S. 

The measures used by the World Forum to define quality of life were nearly identical to those used in the 2004 Status of Women Report, which was done by the prestigious Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.  They included:  Employment and Earnings, Social and Economic Opportunity, Reproductive Rights, Health and Well-Bring and Political Participation.

How are American women doing compared to the rest of the world?  We’re 17th in the world, just ahead of Costa Rica and behind 16 other countries. Sweden was first. China is 33rd and moving up.   Surprised? 

One of the factors that lowered the U.S. score is our long-standing gap between men and women’s earnings for comparable work.  Think of the 76 cents to the dollar that women are paid nationally.

And things aren’t necessarily better beyond the glass ceiling where women executives are earning an average of 48 cents to the dollar at Michigan’s 100 largest publicly-held companies, according to Inforum’s 2005 Michigan Women’s Leadership Index.   Catalyst has reported similar results in its national studies on Fortune 500 companies.

“Gender equity is the most viable measure of a country’s development,” Soledad Murillo, Spain’s Secretary General for Gender Equality told reporters at the Madrid conference.  I’d submit it’s just as valid a measure of a state’s development.

This November, voters in Michigan, where I live, face a critical decision.  The deceptively named Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, or Prop 2, is a proposed constitutional amendment patterned after one passed by California voters several years ago.  It would outlaw gender and race-specific Affirmative Actions programs in government and education, and send a precedent setting signal for business to follow.  Too many women underestimate the impact it could have on their lives and those of their daughters.

As a woman who entered journalism in the 70’s and global business in the 90’s, I had a front-lines view of the paradigm shifting changes in laws and social attitudes that have positively impacted the lives of several generations of women and their families.

Those changes didn’t just happen.  They were triggered by Civil Rights, Title IX and Affirmative Action. Contrary to discriminating against white men, those laws merely pried open previously locked doors to education and economic and social opportunity that ambitious women and minorities pushed through on their way to pioneering accomplishments. 

Yet, you need look no further than the percentages of women and people of color in Congress, on corporate boards, living in poverty, and the ever-present wage gap to understand how wide the gender and race gaps still are. 

Yes, we’re making progress.  But as U.S. corporations face increasing global competition, I wonder:  Will Michigan – and any other states considering similar steps -- really be a stronger, better, place to work and live if we close the cracks of opportunity that affirmative action has opened.

The choice is ours – a step forward or a step back?  The world will be watching.

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