Public policy a key to creating women leaders, panel says

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Lajla Brandt Jakhelln

Lajla Brandt Jakhelln, deputy chief of mission for the Norwegian embassy, says Norway provides subsidized day care, maternity and paternity leave, and the ability to work part time until the youngest child turns 12. She spoke Monday in Washington. (Kate Winkle/SHFWire)

WASHINGTON – Lajla Brandt Jakhelln has the life many women want, but struggle to have, in the United States.

She’s the deputy chief of mission at the Norwegian embassy and  the mother of three, a good example of policies in place in Norway that allow both women and men to maintain leadership roles and cultivate a family. Those policies include subsidized day care, maternity and paternity leave and the ability to work part time until the youngest child turns 12.

“It is indeed possible to combine empowerment, care and work,” Jakhelln said. “Each country has to find its own path.”

The U.S. encourages women to strive for leadership positions individually, a method called “leaning in” after a book written by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.

 Although women hold 52 percent of all professional-level jobs in the U.S., between 10 and 20 percent of them attain top leadership positions, according to a Center for American Progress fact sheet. The center hosted a panel discussion Monday to explore whether public policy might be a better method for attaining workplace equality.

That would mean addressing structural and cultural issues.

Joan Williams, the founding director for the Center for WorkLife Law, said elite jobs often come with a “long-hours ethic,” that doesn’t provide flexibility outside of a job. Women also face an additional four types of gender bias that can be difficult to navigate: constantly proving themselves, dealing with competition among women, balancing work and motherhood and meeting standards different from those men must meet to be seen as likeable.

“If she’s direct, outspoken, negotiates hard for salary, then her name begins with a ‘B,’” Williams said.

Many women leave jobs or do not pursue higher positions because of a toxic environment, Williams said.

Williams’ ideal policy to encourage women to strive for leadership positions is similar to Norway’s solutions: access to child care, options for part-time work, pregnancy accommodations and publicly available reports about salaries.

In the U.S. system, however, other techniques for creating change have more immediate results.

One of the more effective tools to get businesses to address concerns is litigation, Pamela Stone, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and City University of New York, said. That fear of being sued can trigger changes that shape new best practices to address issues.

Most businesses need something to prompt a change, whether it’s litigation, regulation, legislation or a business that leads by example, Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for employment and education at the National Women’s Law Center, said.

“I think you need all of the above,” Graves said.

Public policy on the federal level can prompt effective policies on state and local levels, Graves said. President Barack Obama signed an executive order April 8 to protect workers from retaliation when they discuss unequal compensation. He also asked that the secretary of labor require federal contractors to share information about employee compensation.

Graves said U.S. businesses aren’t transparent enough about practices, and more information about how they operate could change workplace dynamics.

Fostering women’s success requires a structural and cultural change, Williams said. Society must redefine not only women’s roles but also men’s, by encouraging both to pursue work and family.

Jakhelln said the solution to increasing women’s leadership roles is a combination of individual and societal actions: encouraging women to seize opportunities, enacting policy and investing resources to fulfill that policy.

“Maybe we really can have it all,” Jakhelln said. “Men and women will be treated equally and no one will bat an eye.”

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Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

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