Photo: Cary Brown at Vermont State Capitol Building

Vermont Commission on Women Executive Director Cary Brown M’10 on the continued pay gap for women, glass ceilings, glass cliffs, and the transformative power of Generation Z

NORWICH RECORD | Winter 2021

The Vermont Commission on Women was established in 1964, after John F. Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and urged the nation’s governors to do the same. Today, the pocket-size independent state agency continues to fight discrimination and advance opportunities for women and girls by advising the executive and legislative branches of state government. Norwich alumnae Cary Brown has served the commission for the past 13 years, first as a commissioner and, since 2012, as the agency’s executive director. Brown recently spoke with the Record about the disparities women continue to face in today’s workforce, ways to address those inequities, and her optimism for the next generation of Norwich women graduates.

How has the landscape changed for women in recent decades?

When this commission was started in 1964, women were making 50-some cents to the dollar that men were making. A huge, huge wage gap. There were many things in law that were discriminatory—from big imbalances to little tiny things. For example, if a married woman wanted to be listed in the phone book under her own name, she had to pay extra. Otherwise, she just got listed by her husband’s name. We’ve done a lot to get rid of discriminatory laws and also to put in place laws that combat discrimination. We’ve added pretty strong equal-pay laws; discrimination in hiring and pay is illegal. We’ve seen a lot of changes since 1964. Honestly, though, those changes came most quickly in the ’70s and ’80s. Since the ’90s, however, things have really leveled off.

When we’re thinking about women in leadership in particular and women’s representation in various levels of society, it’s slowed down a lot. We have a long way to go. Women have been the majority of college students since 1988. And yet we don’t see them represented at the highest levels of corporations, of business and education and politics. In practically every field you can point to where women haven’t traditionally been represent¬ed, such as engineering or other STEM fields, even where we see their participation going up, we don’t see that same increase at the top levels. Even when their participation has been going up for decades. So we really have a structural problem that is continuing to perpetuate inequities and disparity.

Unpack that a little more. What’s driving that dynamic?

Well, let’s look at something like the wage gap, for instance. It’s some-thing that gets a lot of attention when you look at how much money women and men are paid overall. There’s a difference. In the U.S., women today earn about 79% of what men receive, depending on which state you’re looking at. It also depends on race. Usually the disparity is much greater for women of color. There are a lot of reasons for the gap between men and women. Some of that has to do with where women are working and the kinds of jobs that they’re doing. Women tend to be clustered in jobs where the pay is lower. For instance, childcare workers. Very low pay, almost all women. Men tend to be clustered in the high¬er paying jobs, such as engineering, which is much higher paying and has more men.

But if we look at that a little bit closer, we really need to ask why it is that the jobs that women are in are the ones that pay less? What does it say about the values of our society [and how we view] the people who take care of children? Or the people who provide health care? Or the people who are teachers and other kinds of caregivers? Why are they paid so much less than engineers, for example? (Not to disparage engineers.) We do see that when those fields start to change, when the gender composition starts to change, if you have more men going into a field that’s been dominated by women, the pay does tend to go up. Unfortunately, you see the other side, too. When women go into a field dominated by men, you see the pay start to go down.

It’s clearly linked to something much more fundamental about our beliefs and how we practice them and how we express them through the work that we do and how much we pay people. I think you see this expressed in lots and lots of different ways. For example, in the corporate world, where you have more women going into managerial positions: If you look at managerial and supervisory positions there, the representation is pretty close to equal. But when you look at the high-up positions, like the CEOs and the heads of departments and that kind of thing, you see far, far fewer women. There are lots of reasons for this and some key dynamics at play.

One that we’re all probably familiar with is this idea of the glass ceiling. You go as high as you can go. There is evidence to show that women are not always given as many opportunities to work on the projects that are going to advance them. They’re not necessarily given the promotions. They’re not necessarily given the same opportunities that men are. And then this idea of the glass cliff is another phenomenon, where women are getting assigned to projects where there’s a high likelihood of failure. Or they’re not given the resources that they need to succeed. So they’re putting a lot of energy into something that is not going to advance their career. These are dynamics that have been observed. This isn’t just somebody’s theory. Those are the kinds of things that over the course of a career can have an impact.

How do we move beyond that, and are you optimistic that we can?

There are things that can be done, including recognizing some of those more subtle dynamics that we have in place. Things like how an employer responds when somebody becomes a parent. Women often are assumed to be the ones who are going to be the primary caregivers in the family, because they most often are. Sometimes that can lead to not getting offered a promotion, not getting put on the task force that’s going to lead to some big opportunities. Because it’s assumed that they’re going to be taken out by their family responsibilities. And vice versa. Men face a really significant stigma in many cases when they do try to balance their home responsibilities with work. A woman saying, “I have to leave at five o’clock every day to pick up my child from daycare” may suffer repercussions, where she’s not promoted at the same rate or given the same opportunities. Whereas if a man says that, it can be extremely damaging. He’s seen as someone who just doesn’t care about his career at all. There’s a lot of pressure on men not to do that. Which really helps enforce this very unequal and inequitable distribution of family responsibilities. So that’s a big thing.

Employers can look at dynamics like that. They can look at their policies. Do they offer paid parental leave when someone has a baby, rather than just paid maternity leave? Do they of¬fer it to either parent? Do they have flexible working options so you can flex your schedule and come in earlier and leave earlier? Are they applying these evenly and equitably to people? That’s a pretty easy thing that employers can do. I actually think that right now with so many people having switched to remote work, everybody is seeing how this can work. We’re also seeing the challenges, of course. We’re also seeing the burden of taking care of children and supervising children’s schooling. Remote schooling is falling much more heavily on the shoulders of women. So I think with this pandemic, we’re actually in danger of seeing some pretty significant setbacks to some of the progress that women have made in the workplace, which is pretty distressing to me.

In general, we have to look at building a stronger career pipeline or track for women in all fields, but particularly in nontraditional, high-paying industries. We know that we need to educate girls and young women about opportunities available to them and give them a chance to meet role models and try things that they might not think of as jobs for them. So that we can get them into the pipeline—or maybe onto the train is a better metaphor. But then there are so many opportunities after that for women to drop off if we don’t consciously work to keep them on and to get new women onboard, as well. For example, in the ’80s, there were lots of women going into engineering and attending engineering programs, graduating with degrees—a huge influx of women. And then over the next 20 years, so many of them just dropped out, because they just couldn’t figure out ways to make the career work with all these expectations that they still had with family responsibilities and whatever else. We don’t actually know all the exact reasons why that happened. Some of it probably has to do with working environments. I mean, if you look at some fields, they’re very, very difficult to be a woman in. If it’s a male-dominated field where it’s traditionally been men, sometimes the environment is really rough. A woman may feel like she got over that big hurdle getting into that nontraditional career. But then once she gets there, if she doesn’t have the support to stay there, she may drop out. So that’s really what that idea of this strong, not leaky pipeline needs to be.

Now, even if we get a lot of women into these fields, as I was saying earlier, we don’t necessarily see them at the top. So we have to be really conscious about what are we doing to make sure that leadership opportunities are being taken and that women are getting to the top. There are huge benefits, too. In the corporate world, the bottom line is better when you have more women on your boards. When you have more women in leadership positions, the company makes more money. Governments perform better when they have more women in them. When you have more women in national governments and federal governments, you have a more stable government. They’re less likely to respond to conflicts with violence. You see less likelihood of civil war in countries that have more women in government. So there are huge benefits to everybody.

What is it about having more women that makes companies more successful or governments more effective?

I think we have some sense in government—we have seen in not just in our country, but around the world— that women tend to reach across the aisle more. They tend to work with their political opponents more readily than men do. That kind of collaboration and working together gets you to better results. Women in government tend to be more focused on issues of equality and human-service issues.

What’s the prize? What do societies gain overall in correcting some of these inequities?

We get a society that is more representative of the people who are in it. Which means that we get government and we get leaders who are making decisions that are based on a wider range of interests. They’re not just looking at the perspectives and the interests of a very narrow group of people. What we traditionally have in our country is a pretty narrow group of people who are in power and making most of the decisions. They don’t necessarily have the interest of everybody else at heart. And so that’s the case for expanding representation of all kinds. We need greater gender representation. We need greater race representation. We need people from different economic backgrounds and of different ages to really be able to make decisions that are based in a broader perspective and take more consequences into account.

Women graduating from Norwich today will enter a workforce and world that . How would you finish the sentence?

I think it’s a really important question, because I think they’re going into a world that’s very, very different from the world their parents went into or from the world that Norwich students for so many generations have gone into. I mean, of course there are major issues with the economy right now that every college student is going to face. Their opportunities could be limited because of that. But outside of that, it’s the nature of the workforce. I see it already. They’re not just entering a different workforce. They’re really changing it as they come in.

This generation is bringing ideas to work that are radically different, I would say. They’re not looking for a career that is going to define them and be their whole life. They’re looking for a career that’s going to be one aspect of their life, and they’re expecting that. Obviously, this is speaking very broadly and not everybody fits into this. But they’re expecting that they’re going to have a family. They’re going to have a job. They’re going to have fulfilling recreational activities. They’re going to have things that they do that speak to all different parts of them as people, and their work is just one aspect of that. And so I think what I’m very hopeful we will see in terms of gender is that we’ll have more men who are expecting and behaving as though they’re going to be full partners in parenting and in taking care of home responsibilities. They are going to be demanding a workplace that supports that. So that some of that stigma when a man says he’s got to leave for the soccer game will go away. Because everybody who’s a parent will be having to balance home and work.

So I’m actually incredibly optimistic when I look at this youngest generation that’s coming into work now. Because I think they’re the ones who are going to do that. And I think that they don’t have to do nearly as much to get over some old ideas about what men are supposed to do and what women are supposed to do. They really come in thinking, “I am going to do what I want to do, and I’m going to make my own decisions and my family’s decisions based on what’s best for us and not based on gender stereo¬types.” So that’s my hope.

Former NU Alumni Association board member Cary Brown M’10 earned a Master’s in Public Administration from the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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