Susan Estrich: Why women in the workplace are stuck

From the commentary: It's the "mini-me" factor that no one is even aware of and that leads people (men) to duplicate themselves. Then there is the "comfort factor," also unconscious but no less powerful, the measure of who the decisionmaker literally feels more comfortable with, generally someone like him.


If it feels like women's progress in the workplace is stuck, that's because it is. In 2002, women earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. Last year, after 20 years, there was 2 cents of progress — compared to the progress of the 1980s and 1990s, when the pay gap narrowed by 15 cents.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich commentary
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The low-hanging fruit has been picked. The structural inequalities remain.

There is equality at the very bottom, according to Pew Research. The improvements in the last two decades of the 20th century stemmed largely from increases in women's participation in the labor force. At the turn of the century, women and men were roughly equal in terms of higher education. Now, according to Pew, women are better educated: 48% of working women hold at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 41% of men. But the payoff — measured in dollar terms — has diminished.

Gender-based job segregation remains a driving factor. Even women in traditionally male-dominated industries tend to perform different jobs than men. The women, even in tech and finance, are more likely to be found in admin positions or in staff jobs rather than in profit-and-loss jobs that are more likely to lead to top promotions.

Then there are the traditional barriers that come with family responsibilities. The pay gap is much narrower for younger women and grows as women get older. Fathers make the most money; mothers make the least. Women with a bachelor's degree and a child younger than 18 make the same as non-mothers with only a high school diploma.


Systemic racism also plays a role. Black women make 70% what men do, and Hispanic women make 65% as much.

And at the top? The old theory was that women would make it to the top of the heap and change the rules for those who come after. In the Fortune 500 in 2021, a grand total of 41 CEOs are women — 41 women and 459 men.

Unconscious bias certainly explains part of the problem. The higher you go, the more subjective the decision-making process becomes. It is only human nature to see those who resemble ourselves as the most qualified for a position. It's the "mini-me" factor that no one is even aware of and that leads people (men) to duplicate themselves. Then there is the "comfort factor," also unconscious but no less powerful, the measure of who the decisionmaker literally feels more comfortable with, generally someone like him.

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There is also the reality of constant availability. There was, especially during the pandemic, some hope that working from home would afford parents/mothers greater flexibility to juggle working with the responsibilities of motherhood. But reality, for many of us, bites. Employers became greedier about time, assuming that workers were constantly available whenever they were at home. The burdens of parenting only increased at the same time as the burdens of work did.

And there is the false comfort that comes with thinking that the problem of gender discrimination in the workplace has somehow been solved, that it is a problem of the past, a vestige of the last century, a 20th-century problem. Not so. The difference between then and now is that at least we recognized that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. It is still a crisis, but it is one we are too quickly turning our backs on, as if we had solved it, when in fact we are stuck and not moving forward. If we ever hope to close the gap, we must begin by recognizing the continuing problem that it poses.

This Susan Estrich commentary is her opinion. She can be reached at


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Opinion by Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich is an American lawyer, professor, author, political operative, and political commentator. She can be reached via
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