Into this zeitgeist steps Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who today founded the Men for Women Caucus in the U.S. House "to promote economic growth through women's empowerment." Standing in front of a impressive lineup of women who sit on corporate and nonprofit boards, Beyer outlined all the benefits of boosting women's representation in the workforce, particularly in the highest echelons of power.
"When women succeed, our economy succeeds," Beyer said at the National Press Club, promising to "sponsor legislation, convene stakeholders, and communicate the economic imperative of moving to greater parity." Accompanying him for the announcement was Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg LP and founding chairman of the U.S. chapter of the 30 Percent Club, which seeks to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards and other executive positions.
Current inequities are easy to illustrate in statistics. Female labor force participation is 57.2 percent, compared with 69.7 percent for men, and is projected to decline over the next decade. Men make up 80 percent of all board seats on the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, which is about the same percentage of men in Congress.
It's not clear, however, how much of a difference this new initiative can make. House caucuses, which are informal groups of members who are generally on the same page about a given topic, are often largely symbolic. And this one seems to be even more symbolic than most.
Its first action is a resolution expressing the sense of Congress that corporations should increase the number of women who serve on their boards. With no members yet, Beyer is being very vague about what policies the group will support. While he personally backs President Obama's childcare tax credit proposal and proposals that would expand paid parental leave, the caucus is sticking to a "voluntary, business-led approach," avoiding new laws entirely.
"To the extent that corporations can make the decision that they’re better off and stronger with women on boards, it’s a lot better than a mandate," Beyer said. “I don’t want to get ahead of the caucus members here," Beyer continued, when asked how exactly congressional men would be standing up for women. "I’m hoping we can lead the caucus in that direction" -- toward baseline requirements for female-friendly workplaces -- "but it’s easier to be a broad, bipartisan effort.” (None of the recent family-friendly bills advanced by Democrats have yet made it out of committee.)
Beyer also rejects the idea of gender quotas for corporate boards, which a number of European countries -- including Norway, Germany, France, Spain and Italy -- have enacted, to some effect. Such a policy would not only be politically impossible in the current congressional environment, Beyer argued, but also potentially lead to a perception that female board members didn't earn their seats through merit.
There was also some disagreement in the news conference about how far men should go in their solidarity with women. When asked whether men should refuse to serve on all-male boards, for example, Irene Natividad -- a women's rights activist and public affairs professional -- answered in the affirmative. "Sure," she said. "Why not?"
Bloomberg's Grauer, however, disagreed. "Men should agree to serve on boards whether they’re gender diverse or not, because for those that aren’t, they can make a difference," he said.
Grauer argued that corporations are already moving in this direction, as younger people demonstrate a desire for more equitable workplaces. Indeed, at the Clinton Global Initiative's meeting Tuesday, a coalition of major corporations are scheduled to announce newly generous family-leave policies, as well as an initiative to help the rest of the private sector follow suit.
“I do think there’s much more palpable momentum around these issues today than there has ever has been in the history of our country," Grauer said. "And it’s true with women, it’s true with the gay community, and it’s true with other ethnicities.”
They have a long history and a lot of cultural barriers to break through first -- and male solidarity may have to be more than symbolic in order to make a difference.