As we celebrate 100 years of Votes for Women, we can be proud that our state was one of the original 36 to ratify the 19th Amendment and one of 22 states to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in its first year—and doing so by a solid vote—which required leadership and engagement from Kansans of all stripes in order to achieve. But, clearly, the fight for equality is far from over. Now is the time for greater focus on equal pay as well as equal opportunity for women to advance in the workplace.
My focus in this blog is on what can be done to make the most of the underutilized skills of the women in our labor market. This is not just about equal pay but promoting women to make best use of their talents and leadership skills for the benefit of us all.
The growing fact is that many young women are outperforming young men at a significant pace by doing better in their classes, by simply learning more, and by being better prepared to really make a difference through taking action. I’ve seen it here at K-State in my own teaching. I want to make it clear that we have many very talented young men, it is just that they tend to be fewer in number. As an extreme example to make a point, at K-State’s School of Veterinary Medicine, women dominate enrollment, which I assume is likely tied to their scoring higher on entrance tests.
Given our historical record and struggles in Kansas and nationwide striving for gender equality, to be successful at making real change, I think it will require a greater understanding of the material benefits to equality and greater incentive for those moving toward it. This can start with an awareness and acknowledgment of the fact that, when companies pay women less for equal work and/or fail to make full use of the leadership talent that women bring to the workplace, the negative impact on the bottom line can be quite significant. A comparable illustration of this would be a co-ed basketball team where the coach would only play the men, even though several of the women players' stats were far superior. Not having the team’s best players on the court—and in a position to make a difference—could cost them the game.
So how does that progress take place?
First, this change is not going to come from government action alone. Progress will come only when the business community sees the significant positive economic benefits. Then decision-makers, public and private, can set the example by hiring, paying equitably, and promoting the person who can do the job best regardless of gender. The grassroots of the country must lead this change, and I’m pleased now that there are leaders in athletics, business, and government who are helping to raise awareness and inspire action from the general public. The fact that more women are stepping up to run for public office also gives me hope. And younger generations inspire me to believe that the message has taken hold, and their continued engagement is precisely the thing that can bring about the lasting changes we need.
With the pandemic and economic challenges we face, returning to old norms seems less and less likely to happen. This means success will tend to go to changemakers, leaders in all sectors who are willing to adjust and do what it takes to be most successful. And one of those change areas must be positioning the talent of women for best results.
So here’s to the leadership and engagement that brought us the 19th Amendment. It is my hope that future celebrations of progress for women include pay equity and rightful promotions. When that happens, we will not only celebrate but also reap the economic and policy rewards.