Judging from the media buzz, women appear to be racing to the top of the corporate ladder. Books trumpet the “end of men” and wives taking over as breadwinners, articles tout the success of female executives at General Motors and Yahoo, charts show women earning the majority of advanced degrees.
But authors Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett were certain the picture wasn’t as rosy as it seemed. So they pored over mountains of research done on working women and turned their not-so-rosy findings into a book, “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and our Economy.”
Women are still discriminated against in the workplace, they say, but the discrimination has become harder to detect, hidden in subtle biases such as mothers being seen as less dedicated to their work and less deserving of raises or promotions.
“It’s not people firing bullets dead at your chest,” said Rivers. “The landmines are buried.”
Meanwhile, stories of women’s occasional successes that spread across the Internet like wildfire — and never disappear — create the perception that women are doing better than they are, leading many to stop pushing for equality, Rivers and Barnett argue. When women don’t realize that the playing field remains uneven, they tend to blame themselves for losing out on a job or promotion.
The best-seller list doesn’t help, either.
“For most women, ‘leaning in’ is not going to get you very far,” said Barnett, referring to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book about women getting ahead by being more assertive.
“Soft War” is the sixth book that Rivers, a Boston University journalism professor, and Barnett, a senior scientist at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, have written together. The women have long written separately about gender issues, Barnett largely in academic journals, Rivers in newspapers and magazines, as well as her best-known work, a comic novel about Catholic school girls called “Virgins.” But when an agent connected two women in the 1970s, they found a fertile middle ground.
Rivers, who started out covering the Kennedy presidency and the civil rights movement as a reporter in Washington, livened up the scholarly findings of Barnett, who trained as a clinical psychologist and has worked as a researcher at several Boston institutions. That arrangement remains to this day, with Rivers having the last word on style, and Barnett on content.
The authors sat together recently behind Rivers’s desk in her book- and art-filled office at Boston University, both wearing gray cardigans and taking turns explaining their work. Along with their professional partnership, the two have become friends, attending movies and plays together along with Barnett’s husband. Rivers’s husband, the late Boston Globe columnist Alan Lupo, died in 2008.
“We can finish each other’s sentences,” Rivers said.
The pair has experienced what they’re talking about first hand. Rivers feels it when people look at her “cross-eyed” when she is assertive; Barnett said she noticed it when male colleagues warned her that a senior psychologist was incredibly difficult to work with, apparently because they didn’t know what to make of a strong woman who had surpassed them. Through their books, Rivers and Barnett aim to make people aware of how damaging slights like these can be.
The authors’ work makes the “seemingly invisible visible,” said Ellen Galinksy, president of the Families and Work Institute,a New York nonprofit that researches workforce issues. It’s a sign of progress that biased behavior is less blatant, Galinsky said, but it also means society has to be more vigilant.
“Because it’s more hidden, it’s more insidious,” she said. “So it takes the Caryls and the Rozes, it takes the Sheryl Sandbergs, it takes the ‘Lean In’ circles, to expose it.”
Rivers and Barnett spent three years examining data for “The New Soft War.” Barnett focused on academic research — hundreds of studies on men, women, and the workplace — and Rivers tracked how working women were presented in media and politics.
Aside from two online surveys they conducted about women’s experiences in the workplace, the authors relied largely on other people’s research, much of it previously relegated to obscure academic journals. There was no shortage of findings showing that women still lag behind.
Among the overlooked evidence: When men and women work together on a project, men get more credit (New York University study, 2005); women are promoted on performance, men on promise (McKinsey & Co., 2011); mothers are seen as less committed to work than childless women, while fathers are more likely to be promoted than childless men (Cornell University, 2005).
What does make it into the mainstream is often more hype than substance, Rivers and Barnett say, as authors cherry-pick data to craft the juiciest, most buzz-worthy stories. In her 2012 book “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Our Culture,” for instance, journalist Liza Mundy cites recent Labor Department data showing that 38 percent of working women earn more than their spouses (including laid-off husbands) up from just 24 percent in 1987.
What she didn’t mention, Rivers and Barnett say in their book by citing work by two economists, is that this figure is largely made up of low-income families and includes women who earn a little as a $1 more than their husband.
“Just reading the headlines about women you’d think, ‘Oh my God, they’re all doing wonderfully.’ But the fine print of course says that’s not the story,” Barnett said.
In response, Mundy stressed that there are women at every income level who earn more than their husbands, and getting the word out will help close the wage gap between men and women.
“Too often, women’s wages are regarded by bosses as supplementary and not that important, and this impacts the wages women get,” Mundy said in an e-mail. “The more we acknowledge women’s role as breadwinners supporting households, at all income levels, the more pressure will be placed on management to pay women what they deserve.”
Rivers and Barnett maintain that it’s important to recognize that discrimination against women is still rampant. A study done at the University of Queensland in Australia found that when men see statistics that show women making gains in leadership, education, and work, they feel anxious; when women read the same statistics, they think their status has improved and become less likely to identify with other women.
Believing that women have progressed further than they have could result in a damaging dynamic of hostility and complacency, the authors say. If men feel threatened and women think everything’s fine, they won’t feel an urgency to address the subtle or hidden types of discrimination that make it difficult for women to advance, the authors say.
For their next book, Rivers and Barnett, who both have children in their 40s and admit only to being “senior citizens,” are looking at aging, specifically how longer life spans affect people’s possibilities. Not surprisingly, gender issues will likely play a role.
Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.