What Gloria Steinem Got Absolutely Right: Women Lose Power As They Age

Amid the outrage over her comments on Bernie Sanders and young women, we missed something big.
Gloria Steinem said on "Real Time with Bill Maher" that "When you’re young, you’re thinking, 'Where are the boys?
Gloria Steinem said on "Real Time with Bill Maher" that "When you’re young, you’re thinking, 'Where are the boys?' The boys are with Bernie," to explain why young women support the Vermont senator.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem has been savaged -- perhaps, rightly so -- for glibly dismissing young women who support Bernie Sanders, claiming they’re only feeling the Bern because that’s what the “boys” are doing.

But before she insulted most of the young women in America, Steinem said something extremely important and unfortunately true. (The bolding below is mine.)

“Women get more radical as we get older, because we experience ... not to over-generalize, but ... men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, women get more radical because they lose power as they age.”

Steinem is right: Women lose power as they age. This isn’t some kind of squishy feeling ladies have or some kind of lament about how older women aren’t considered attractive and slowly become invisible. (Though that is, of course, also true.)

No, this is about real political and financial muscle. Women, overall, don’t have the kind of clout men hold. And to grow up female in the United States is to come to terms with that simple fact.

This absolutely helps explain why younger women don't think electing a female president is particularly important. They look around and see women -- their peers -- doing great. Older women live a different reality.

The shock of what happens as a woman ages comes on slowly. I've heard more than a few female colleagues say that the gender politics of the workplace have come as a surprise. These women, as they get older, look above and around themselves at work and start to wonder: Where did all the women go? Why are so many of them working in less influential jobs? Why did a young man at the office just ask me for my "mom" opinion on his coat? Am I still a person? (Ok, those last two are just from me personally.)

Anyway, let's peruse the data.

In elementary school and high school, girls get better grades. More women attend college than men. More women graduate from college than men. 

Then they go to work, they marry, they have children, their parents get sick. Things get real. Women's progress starts to flatline. 

You can see this clearly in the data on income. The gender pay gap -- the difference between what men and women earn -- widens as women age. Young men and women start out in their careers on relatively equal footing. Women earn about 90 percent of what men make -- before even controlling for factors like education and occupation.

That ratio pretty quickly plummets, coming down to below the 70 percent level in some cases, as Harvard economist Claudia Goldin wrote recently in an influential paper on the pay gap.

This happens, Goldin explains, because women in 2016 still wind up taking on most caregiving responsibilities as they age. They must work and contend with child-rearing, and the pay penalty for child-rearing is severe. Women’s earnings decrease 4 percentage points for each child they have, according to one study.

Data collected by Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, for a paper published by Thir
Data collected by Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, for a paper published by ThirdWay, shows how women's pay is penalized as they age, marry and have kids.

Highly educated female lawyers and MBAs, who hold the types of degrees that make it possible to accrue real power in the U.S., downshift to less lucrative and influential positions in their fields. They leave the powerful law firms to go in-house at corporations or work part-time. They leave big investment banks to take on roles at smaller places with more flexibility.

And even if they stay the course at powerful companies, there's still covert and overt sex discrimination holding back pay and promotions.

There aren’t many women holding powerful corporate positions. There are only 20 female CEOs in the S&P 500. 

Young women think they're going to change all that; but it's hard to find any forecasts that back up this belief. One recent study from McKinsey and estimates that it will take 100 years for women to achieve gender equality in Corporate America.

Women drop off the corporate ladder as it climbs to the executive suite. In business jargon we call this the “pipeline problem." Companies are constantly talking about it. Women enter the business world in relatively equal numbers to men, but they do not last. Look at this chart from a recent report from consulting firm McKinsey, which examined gender stats over 100 corporations in the U.S.

In politics, no one talks about the “pipeline,” probably because the situation is worse. Women don’t enter the field at the same rate as men. Women hold only 84 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives. And they have 20 out of 100 seats in the senate.

Shall we name all the women presidents? JK!

These days, some argue they’re not going to vote for Hillary Clinton because it’s only a matter of time before a woman is elected to the office. It’s hard to look at this data and truly believe that.

And equal representation in business and politics matters. A lot. Do not delude yourself.

When women are missing from the upper echelons of business and from the halls of politics, women’s interests just aren’t as well-represented. It’s why Congress spends more time fighting over funding Planned Parenthood than debating how to enact paid family leave -- an issue that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. It's partly why politicians are still fighting about abortion, 42 years after the Supreme Court supposedly settled the question.

Yes, there are male politicians fighting for gender equality. Sanders certainly has made closing the pay gap part of his platform. Obama has done what he can for women. But it’s hard to argue that women’s interests are properly reflected in our political bodies. It's hard not to believe that more women in power -- including at the executive level -- wouldn't ultimately further the interests of women.

Remember: Women are not a minority. They comprise half of the United States’ population.

In the U.S., the government does not offer women (or men) very much support to enable them to pull off the juggle of work and family without sacrificing income. There is no paid family leave, no subsidized child care (beyond public school), and there isn’t even paid sick leave. These are common benefits in most other developed economies.

Why don’t we have those kinds of policies? Ones that would actually support women in achieving earning equality? And that would support men in more successfully taking on their roles as fathers?

Because the men in power haven't really considered the need for them.

If those sorts of things matter to you, if you truly want that pay gap to vanish, it's probably time to boost more women up to the top.