As women get better educated and participate more fully in the workplace, the glass ceiling remains as real as the economic basement where more than two million women over age 65 reside. Despite making progress toward equality in the latter half of the 20th century, women still suffer discrimination that undervalues their worth in both the workplace and at home.
Working women are paid just 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts receive. Although women earn 57 percent of bachelor's degrees and 60 percent of master's degrees, they continue to represent a meager 3 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, hold just 15 percent of the board seats of those companies and fill only 6.3 percent of top-earning executive posts.
For women who stay home to raise a family or care for an aging parent or sick child, their "reward" is years of accumulated "zeroes" in Social Security credits toward retirement.
What is going to happen to the millions of baby boomer women who begin to turn 65 this year after earning low to no pay during their prime working years?
And there is another shift that will affect all of us, but especially baby boomer women: The number of unmarried women has tripled in the past 50 years to 55 million. Who will care for aging unmarried women, who are likely to spend nearly a third of their lives in retirement without pensions or enough in their 401ks?
These dismal statistics, tracked by Catalyst (the nonprofit organization that seeks to advance women in the workplace) tell only part of the story.
Women fare no better in the political arena.
Yes, two women have been vice presidential candidates for the major political parties, albeit 24 years apart, and in 2008, a woman put more than 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling that so far has blocked women from winning a presidential nomination. Still, just 17 percent of all seats in Congress -- both Senate and House -- are held by women, and the number of women governors will drop to six in 2011 from a high of nine in 2004.
This lack of movement into top policy making positions in both the public and private sectors has serious economic implications. The wage gap and lack of value placed on the economic contributions of women who work as caregivers create a disproportionately slippery slope into poverty for women.
The National Women's Law Center reports that more than 16.4 million women -- more than one in eight -- lived in poverty in 2009. This number included more than half a million single women with children who held full-time jobs and the more than twice as many elderly women living in poverty as elderly men. Seventeen percent of women age 65 and over live alone in poverty.
These pathetic statistics stand in stark contrast to the value of the economic contributions made by America's women.
The financial performance of the Fortune 500 companies with the most women in top management significantly surpasses that of companies with fewer women leaders. Companies with more high-ranking women netted a return on equity that averaged 35 percent higher than less female-friendly counterparts and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders. Those with the most women board members saw an average 53 percent greater return on equity, 42 percent greater return on sales and an eye-popping 66 percent greater return on invested capital.
Results like these suggest that the under-representation of women at the top of our institutions is a major missed opportunity for the U.S. economy.
The pro-woman rhetoric of recent decades has seemingly drowned out the fact that, even though women make up nearly half of the workforce in the United States, they remain clustered in lower-level jobs with low pay. The promise that women would progress as they caught up with men in earning advanced degrees and moving through leadership "pipelines" has turned out to be a hollow one.
Discrimination of any kind has no home in this country. We can't change the past but we can shape the future. If we don't make it a national priority to improve these shameful statistics, then shame on us.