Don't Give Me Roses, Just Give Me Equity

It may not sound like the stuff of Hallmark cards, but if you really love a woman -- your mother, your wife, your daughter -- then speak out about the economic and cultural barriers that are still holding them back.
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This Valentine's Day, skip the chocolates and the teddy bears. Don't bother with expensive flowers or that revealing lingerie you've been eyeing. Quite frankly, many of us are just not in the mood. What women really want, in these volatile times, is greater economic opportunity and security.

It may not sound like the stuff of Hallmark cards, but if you really love a woman--your mother, your wife, your daughter--then speak out about the economic and cultural barriers that are still holding them back. Here are a few alternative Valentine's Day gift suggestions for that special woman in your life:

First, please stop talking about unemployment as if it were only a man's problem. Women, writ large, may have lower unemployment rates (7.9% compared to men's 10%), but that's only part of the story.

For starters, women are still 35% more likely to live in poverty than men in the U.S. Thanks to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we know that different subgroups of women are being hit particularly hard by the recession. For example, single women with children have an official unemployment rate of 12.3% and women with disabilities have a rate of 14.3%. Women-headed households already had about one-half the income of other American households, and now they're facing an unemployment rate of 12.3% (compared to 5.8% for married women).

When President Obama said the word "job" or "jobs" 26 times during the State of the Union address, chances are that what came to mind were blue-collar men in hard hats, but the face of unemployment is also female. We have to make sure that part of the $787 billion Recovery Act is also targeting the growth of job opportunities for women heads of households, those living with disabilities, using English as a second language, or who are just returning from war--among other disproportionately underemployed groups.

For women who are lucky enough to have a paycheck, there are several Valentine's gifts more satisfying than those sickly sweet candy hearts. A dozen roses will be wilted and trashed by her next payday, but equal pay for equal work will make a difference over a lifetime. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the average twenty-five-year-old woman will earn $523,000 less than her male counterpart over the next forty years. Further, everyone knows that women still only make 77 cents to the male dollar, but when you break it down by race, the disparity becomes even more dramatic: Latina women, for example, earn 59.2% and African American women 71.9% as much as white men Instead of reciting poetry to your sweetie on February 14th, why not recite the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to her employer?

Instead of sending a singing telegram, how about sending more bills to Congress and state legislatures to make quality child care more affordable and accessible: one of the main barriers to women's economic advancement?

And while you're at it, how about making sure that all domestic responsibilities are shared more equally? A study conducted by the Clayman Institute for Gender Studies at Stanford University identified huge gender disparities among domestic workloads in dual career academic couples. The study found, for example, that female scientists with male partners perform 54% of the cooking, cleaning and laundry in their homes, while male scientists with female partners perform 28% of the same kinds of housework. Guys, it sounds like it's time to put down the test tube and pick up the vacuum cleaner this heart-filled holiday.

And, if you're one of the few fortunate enough to have any assets, why not seek out a woman financial advisor or portfolio manager? Though women own half the investment wealth in the US, they are still vastly underrepresented in the financial sector. In early 2008, women managed a mere 3% of approximately 2 trillion dollars invested in hedge funds. This, despite the fact that women-owned funds perform well over time; Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research Inc. reported that women-owned funds delivered an annual return of 9.06% compared with 5.82% among all hedge funds from 2000 to 2009.

So, if women can hold their own at every step of the career ladder, why are they still so absent from the board rooms and C-suites of businesses? A 2007 Financial Times survey of women in private equity found that 75% of those queried said their gender made it more difficult for them to succeed. In other words, cultural biases and assumptions prevent women from getting the kind of capital, mentoring, support and flexibility that's necessary to make it in the extreme work cultures that comprise so many top firms.

If you really want to make women feel special, make them feel equal. It's not a Hallmark card we depend on; it's a paycheck and support for our myriad roles and responsibilities as wives, mothers, sisters, co-workers and caregivers.