No Girls Allowed | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

No Girls Allowed

Women are being shut out of the "new" Pittsburgh much like they were in the old

When Linda Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz School of Public Policy, learned how easily Pittsburgh women could be denied an opportunity, it wasn't thanks to a sexist, knuckle-dragging male. And the victims weren't shrinking violets; they were grad students, studying in the very school where Babcock was serving as dean.

They had come to Babcock's office upset because "they had all been assigned to helping professors as teaching assistants, while the male students were getting to teach their own courses."

Babcock investigated and found something surprising: The male students got the teaching posts simply because they'd asked. "None of the women had." Instead, "they assumed that if an opportunity were available, someone would have sent an e-mail."

For Babcock, the incident was a learning experience: "Here I was, a purported feminist, and I was presiding over a situation that was totally unfair. And I didn't even know" -- just as the women didn't know how easily they could have gotten a teaching position. Babcock began studying whether women were assertive enough in the real world, and ff her students are planning to stay in Pittsburgh after graduation, they'll need all the assertiveness training they can get.

According to studies compiled at the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere, southwestern Pennsylvania is one of the hardest places in the country for women to find equal wages and opportunity. While complaints about the gender gap are nothing new, Babcock says, "The gap is just as large for women in their 20s as it is for older women, even though we think of this as a problem for Boomers."

Among the recent findings:

Women in the Pittsburgh region earn substantially less than men, and the gap between them is larger than most other places. Using 2000 Census figures, a Pitt research team led by Ralph Bangs found that median earnings for women were $17,705 a year, less than 60 percent of what men make. During the 1990s, women's wages rose while men's wages fell slightly -- testimony to a local job market that is weak for everyone. Still, when compared to the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh's gender gap is the third largest.

Pittsburgh does well at educating women, but doesn't use their expertise. Thanks to the presence of local universities, within city limits Bangs found one of the nation's highest concentration of college-educated women: Compared to 69 other cities, Pittsburgh had the highest rate of women between ages 18 and 64 who are undergraduate students, and the second-highest rate of women in grad school. But research he compiled last year suggests the region doesn't take advantage of it: Women occupy just over one-third of the region's school-board seats, and only half that percentage of elected positions in municipal government. They're even harder to find on corporate boards.

Women here are excluded from many traditionally male fields, and don't even do well in jobs traditionally held by women. Among the 50 largest regions in the country, Bangs found, Southwestern Pennsylvania has the lowest rates of women working in manufacturing; fewer than one out of every four manufacturing employees is a woman, and rates in industries like construction are even lower. Even in jobs that are traditionally female-dominated, like government and health care, women here trail national averages. For example, women make up just under half of the public-sector workforce; among the nation's 70 largest cities, the average is closer to three-fifths.

Women at local non-profits do particularly poorly. According to a study released last year by Pitt researchers Susan Hansen, Leonard Huggins and Carolyn Ban, recent female college graduates are more likely to work for a non-profit than men. But only one of seven women is likely to earn more than $50,000 a year at a non-profit, while two of every five men are. That disparity is actually larger than in the for-profit world, where men are only 40 percent more likely than women to earn more than that.

The gender gap exists nationwide, of course, and not always because of overt discrimination. Part of the gap is attributable to the time women lose from work due to childrearing, for example. But the problem is especially pressing here, and "If women aren't at the table to decide how the pie gets distributed, they probably won't get much," Bangs says. When they don't, when they have the same skills as men but don't earn the same money, "Bias is something you have to look at."

It isn't always easy to see, however. While sex discrimination is against the law, few women can prove the case without access to salary numbers. Between June 2002 and July 2003, the Pittsburgh office of the state's Human Relations Commission logged 295 cases of sex harassment in the workplace. But the majority were for overt forms of sexism like harassment. In Allegheny and six surrounding counties, only 23 complaints filed by women concerned pay, and some of those also alleged age or racial bias.

Employers also seek ways to circumvent the rules, says Charles Morrison, who as the head of Pittsburgh's own HRC investigates complaints under a city anti-discrimination ordinance. In the old days, "We used to see custodial jobs, for example, in which women would be paid $7 an hour and men would earn $10." When laws prohibited that practice, "Employers would divide the job into heavy cleaners and light cleaners." By an amazing coincidence, men were put into the better-paying "heavy cleaner" category -- a job women could attain only if they passed a physical. "There was an assumption that men could innately do these things, whereas women had to prove it."

But the more you look for evidence of gender inequality, the easier it is to see -- even at the university that supports Bangs' research, and the newspaper in which you're reading about it. Of more than 60 members of Pitt's board of trustees, less than a dozen are women. City Paper's editorial staff, meanwhile, includes three women out of 11 staffers. All of its editors are male.

Researchers like Bangs -- and many women -- say men will have to recognize that as the region's population dwindles, it can't take 52 percent of the population for granted. That means women like Babcock's students have to start raising their voices.

Feb. 23 may have been a good start. Outraged advocates for women and African Americans convened a press conference in city council chambers that day, castigating the composition of the newly created Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. That five-member board, made up of white males appointed by white male leaders in the state Legislature, will oversee Pittsburgh's troubled municipal finances for the next seven years. A visibly agitated Sara Davis Buss, a Downtown attorney who has served on the board overseeing the city's new stadiums and convention center, charged that the panel's composition was "another example of how this region's limited vision disenfranchises and disheartens us....It's time that the gentlemen take off their blinders."

Cathy McCollom, who presides over the Executive Women's Council, agreed. "We...continue to do the same thing over and over again but expect different results. It just isn't going to happen."

"When a city can have a financial oversight board of five white men, it's a horrendous message," says McCollom today. And the message is: "You're not welcome, and even if there were mistakes made in the past, they were OUR mistakes, and by God we'll continue to be the ones making them."

That message is all too familiar to many women. Ask county Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts what it's like being a female elected official in Pittsburgh, and she laughs and says, "Lonely." In a study of diversity among the region's elected officials last year, Bangs and his team noted that while women make up 52 percent of the region's population, only 5 state legislators out of 64 are female. Women hold fewer than one-fifth of the more than 1,100 council positions on county and local government.

Some progress has been made. Mayor Tom Murphy's administration includes women in several prominent positions, including the solicitor, finance director and director of city planning. Nearly one-third of County Executive Dan Onorato's appointments have been women. But such gains have depended largely on the whims of men; women have struggled to gain political power on their own terms. Only 4 of county council's 15 members are women, and only 1 of 9 Pittsburgh City Councilors is. Gloria Forouzan, a campaign manager and political activist, says the future doesn't look much better. "For 2005, Pittsburgh has more candidates for mayor than the Italian parliament has members," she says. "But where are the women? There aren't any in the running."

In the past year, Forouzan has held two "Run Baby Run" seminars to teach political novices, including many women, the basics of political campaigning. It's the kind of outreach the political parties themselves should be doing, she says -- if they are serious about diversity.

McDonald Roberts agrees. "As a Democrat, that's a criticism I have: We do need to promote, mentor and season more women to aspire to elected office. There aren't enough women in either party, but if you look at elected women historically here, they've mostly been Republicans. What I want to tell Democrats is, ‘Hey, guys, that doesn't look real good on our part.'"

Given the demographics of elected leadership in both parties, the composition of the city's oversight board isn't that surprising, McDonald says. "The appointments were made by white males -- what do you expect?"

So far it's been more of the same, says Linda Dickerson: "If you've had 20 years of population loss, at what point do you realize you need to embrace others?" Dickerson is a consultant and one of the few women who has managed to found her way into prominent Pittsburgh board rooms, including a stint as chair of the city's visitors bureau. But "when organizations are under stress, they revert to old practices," she says. "When all is well, you might take a shot at putting a woman in a leadership role, but when all is not well, you revert to stable, staid old practices."

In Pittsburgh, that means returning to the days when the first postwar Renaissance was planned in the halls of the Duquesne Club -- a gathering place of the region's wealthy where women couldn't even be members until the 1980s. While there have been improvements since the 1950s, leaders in both the public and private sector are still male-dominated.

It'd be easy to blame the city's problems on the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which spearheaded the Renaissance and which remains a vital player today. Only two of its 50 board members are women, after all. Still, in recent years the Conference has taken steps to connect women and minorities with boards. Partly as a result, women now occupy nearly 40 percent of board seats on non-profits examined by Bangs last year. That's up from less than 17 percent two years before. "I'm not as critical of the Conference," Dickerson says, "They define their members as the CEOs and chairmen of large corporations." And progress in corporate boardrooms has been much slower.

Women still make up only 16 percent of the board members governing 21 local corporations studied by Bangs' team. While some businesses and non-profits stand out for inclusiveness -- women cite WQED and PNC Bank, as examples -- the region fares badly overall. Mellon Financial, whose name is practically synonymous with the region's economic history, has only 1 woman on its 16-member board; US Steel has 1 on a board of 12. Even New Economy firms like FreeMarkets Inc. aren't immune: None of FreeMarkets' eight board members is a woman.

"I think it's getting worse," Dickerson says. Women "go to public forums and see all the speakers are white men. They join a board and only 10 percent of them are female. They don't see themselves in positions of power and influence."

Even when women are brought to the table, McCollom says, they're often isolated. "You'll be at a table; there'll be 8 or 16 men, and 1 or 2 women. A woman offers an idea, and it will be cursorily discussed and then dismissed. And then two or three minutes later, a man will raise the same idea in somewhat different language, and it will be embraced."

The burden of being that lone woman is "unfair," says McDonald Roberts. "I'm tired of seeing the same old faces," she says. "I'm tired of seeing my face.

"You have to look at where you've been to understand where you are," McDonald says. "It goes back to the culture here, when men went into the mills and the women stayed home, cleaning soot off the sheets."

In fact, a 1963 study, "Region in Transition," noted that the absence of women in the workforce was "a striking peculiarity of the Pittsburgh labor market." Only one of four Pittsburgh women worked, compared to one in three in metro areas elsewhere. The report blamed the role of heavy manufacturing, whose 24-hour operation was hard to reconcile with family matters. Moreover, since low employment had "prevailed among the Region's women for at least half a century," the report speculated, "low female participation rates...may have by now become ingrained in Pittsburgh folkways."

Still, some women look back on the days of Big Steel with nostalgia.

While she's a professor at Chatham College today, in the 1970s Steffi Domike was among the women to find work in the mills. Thanks to a federal consent decree that required the industry to open its doors to women and minorities, she took a job as an electrician's apprentice.

The adjustment wasn't easy, Domike concedes. One of her female co-workers was a "young blonde" assigned to a crew of "macho young guys," she remembers. The coworker would "be crying every day. She told me they would tie her up with wires all day and go off to work. And at the end of the day they'd let her go."

But at least back then, Domike didn't have to worry about wage disparities. "I was covered under a union contract, so I knew what I would make based on my job classification." While favoritism still played a role, "There was a process in place" for determining salary and work assignments.

Today, by contrast, "I'm in an institution of higher learning, and very few people will tell each other what they are making. People don't have the sense that there's a shared experience or shared legal coverage. There's a presumption in the white-collar world that your success is about your expertise and knowledge" -- and that individual merit, not gender, is the only explanation for why some do better than others.

But by at least one measurement, even the women's college that employs Domike is a man's world. While women make up nearly two-thirds of Chatham's full-time faculty, men make up half of its undergraduate department chairs and hold a three-to-one majority of full professorships -- the most senior posts and usually the best-paid. This at a school presided over by a woman, President Esther Barazzone, and a board of trustees that is 80 percent female.

Colleges can get hamstrung by tenure choices and other employment decisions made years ago. At Chatham, for example, spokesperson Paul Kovach notes, "Up until the 1970s, all the professors were men."

But the legacy of sexism, some charge, afflicts future generations even at institutions trying to change. The University of Pittsburgh was recently rocked by an April Chronicle of Higher Education article reporting allegations that some faculty in the communications department were "routinely" having "consensual sexual relationships with graduate students." That practice, contended an external review cited in the story, "contributes directly to the problem of promoting or tenuring women faculty" and minorities. (While casting doubts on allegations of faculty/student romance, school officials promised to investigate the report, which also noted that "by virtually any relevant criterion" the department was stronger than it had been in previous years.)

CMU's Babcock stumbled onto another aspect of the problem the day her female graduate students came to complain: Sometimes women don't get a fair shake because they don't ask for one.

Spurred by the fate of her grad students, Babcock decided to study whether her female students were more assertive in the job market. Canvassing CMU graduates, she learned that when they were offered jobs, "93 percent of the women accepted the first salary [offer]." More than half the men, meanwhile, used that offer as a starting point for negotiations, and often ended up with higher salaries as a result. "Most employers expect you to negotiate and leave a little off the table at first," Babcock says, but "women feel much more anxiety about the process of negotiating" partly because "society comes down pretty hard on women being aggressive."

Bowing to that pressure costs more than self-esteem. Babcock estimates what women's failure to negotiate a first salary offer can cost $1 million over the course of a career -- and that assumes they'll get the same raises as other employees for the rest of their working lives.

Babcock has published a book about the problem, Women Don't Ask, and says they may be especially unlikely to ask in Pittsburgh. "When I go to give talks about it, everyone tells me that Pittsburgh is much more traditional than other places" when it comes to expectations about how women should behave.

Others just leave the area. A 2001 survey of Pittsburgh-area college graduates conducted by Pitt's Susan Hansen found that "Low salaries proved to be a key reason why many...graduates leave the Pittsburgh region" -- and salary differences between Pittsburgh and elsewhere "are even larger for women, minorities, and international students."

Women like Diana Bucco hope to change such passive-aggressive approaches. "What we keep hearing, again and again, is that women believe the quality of work should speak for itself," says Bucco, the executive director of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. "Men aren't shy about taking credit for their work."

Not only are men more likely to boast about their accomplishments; they have a better chance of someone doing the boasting for them. "Things are closed in Pittsburgh," says Kelleigh Butler, a Coro researcher assisting Bucco. "You get things by word of mouth and who you know." While that's a truism everywhere, "It's very strong here, and it closes off opportunity."

Part of the problem is that the women who do get in the door don't do enough to help others through it. "Men are groomed" for advancement, Bucco says. "They mentor each other. As women, we haven't done a good job of that. Because they reflect what they've experienced" -- and most probably didn't experience it themselves. Coro has been conducting a "Woman Leadership Program" in providing mentoring and career guidance to younger women; Bucco says 100 women have "graduated" from the program. In Bucco's case, a woman she mentored was offered a new job, prompting Bucco to urge, "‘You're young and single and they're going to offer you less.' Did she come back with a higher offer? Yes."

Women are also seeking more collective solutions. Not surprisingly for a former steel-union activist, Domike believes that the wage gap would shrink if more women worked in unions. (Indeed, one reason Pittsburgh lags behind other regions in terms of women's wages, Bangs and other researchers say, is that it has fewer women here working in government jobs, which are more likely to be unionized.)

But even more modest efforts have foundered. Take the Greater Pittsburgh Commission for Women, a 1980s creation of the Richard Caliguiri administration. The organization conducted studies on pay inequity, and its last president, Peggy Harris, recalls a symbolic protest in which women carried half a purse to demonstrate the fraction they were earning for doing the same work as men. But the organization suffered from a lack of funding, and while "We technically haven't nailed the last nail in the coffin, the corpse has been embalmed," says Harris, currently the head of the social-service agency Three Rivers Youth. Attempts to create a scholarship fund for female college students, for example, never raised enough money to do more than "get them a book at Pitt or some vouchers for Burger King.

"I've been part of so many powwows where we've said, ‘We're going to do something,' that I get a little frustrated," says Harris. "You can't just have women talking about this; you have to have some men. But I don't think people do anything out of the goodness out of their heart."

For example, she says, non-profits might pay more attention to how they pay women if the foundations that fund them "were to say, ‘We're going to make this money depend on you proving that you pay equitably.' Nobody ever gets money turned down because their board is not diverse." Last year, she observes, the Heinz Endowments and other local foundations withheld funding from the Pittsburgh schools due to concerns about the district's fractious board. "Where is someone bold enough to do the same thing for women?"

Harris notes Gov. Ed Rendell will be convening a Philadelphia symposium to consider gender issues this September, and other women are talking bolder already. Bucco speaks of "raising an army" of professional women willing to help each other, and to challenge bastions of male privilege. And they won't be seeking inclusion for inclusion's sake. In successful regions and successful companies alike, Bucco says, "You have to ask, ‘How are we representative of our targeted audience?'" Pittsburgh is in the state it's in, she contends, because it hasn't been representative enough so far. That's why "we're at a demographic and financial crisis. People won't come to a place if it's not progressive enough."

The research of Bangs and others "came at a real crossroads," McCollom says. The younger generation of twenty- and thirtysomething women "is far more outspoken than I remember being when I was a thirtysomething," and an older generation of women has seen their kids leave home, and maybe even experienced some business success. With the extra time and confidence, she says, "Maybe we'll become more aggressive. Maybe we'll take a page from other organizations and start issuing report cards on how local employers are doing" on including women.

Still, she says, "You're probably talking to someone who is old and cynical." For all her outrage at the city's financial oversight board, a bill to expand its membership by adding a woman and an African-American has languished in committee. And three years ago, the Executive Women's Council published a directory of women with expertise and interest to serve in leadership spots on corporate boards. But despite improvements in the non-profit world, "There's been little change in corporate boardrooms. I don't know of any women we've placed through this directory," McCollom says. And she lets her copy drop to the desk.

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