Five Minutes With
Martha Burk burst onto the national scene when she led a protest at the 2003 Masters Tournament to open the male-only Augusta National Golf Club to women. While Burk’s protest didn’t convince “Hootie” Johnson, the club’s chairman, to change Augusta’s policy, it did lead Ms. Magazine to name her Woman of the Year for 2003. Since then, Burk has been a tireless advocate for women’s rights, crusading for gender equality in the workplace and recently helping a group of women reach a $46 million settlement in their sex discrimination suit against Morgan Stanley.
Raised in Tyler, Texas, where she got married and had two kids before she was 25, Burk seemed an unlikely candidate to become one the nation’s leading feminist voices. She’s come a long way since then, serving as chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations from 2000 to 2005, but she still has a Texas twang. Burk gave Campus Progress five minutes of her time to explain why politicians can’t afford to ignore women, why there should be gender quotas in Congress, and why men have to help out with the “crap work.”
Campus Progress: The last 50 years saw progress on a lot of women’s issues, from abortion to pregnancy leave. What do you think the most important issues are for women today and what must be done to make progress on them?
Martha Burk: You’re probably asking me about individual issues, like child care or social security. But I think the overriding issue is the erosion of the progress that we have made. This [Supreme] Court is of very great concern to me because they upheld an abortion ban. They have seriously undermined Title VII, which is about women’s workplace rights. Those moves are very serious to me. I think in terms of specific issues, changing demographics is a big one, especially for young women who now virtually all want to have a career and work outside the home. I think child care is going to be a very big issue in the next 20 years as it has been in the last. But I think we’re almost to a tipping point with it where the lawmakers are not going to be able to ignore it.
Along those lines, you’ve mentioned that politicians can no longer afford to ignore women voters. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the measurable difference in how men and women vote. Is this “gender gap” a new phenomenon? And if it’s not, why are people only now starting to take notice?
It’s new and it’s not new. It first appeared in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran for president and women voted in much higher numbers for his opponent and for the Democrats in general. The Democrats squandered it in the last presidential election because [Sen. John] Kerry would not talk about the things women care about. It was before the public turned so sour on the war, and the war right now is overwhelming all other voter concerns— whether it’s young people, older people, male or female, it is the top concern. But I think now it is so clear that nobody can win an election without women’s votes that the candidates are going to have to pay attention to them. What is frustrating to me is that the media has not recognized this. If you look at the [presidential] debates, the questions are stupid. They’re just inane, a lot of them. They don’t address the things that real people or real women care about except for the war.
All eyes have been on the one woman in those debates running for president. But only 16 percent of Congress is female. On a more local level, of the 100 largest cities in America, there are 13 female mayors. Will this disparity in representation in elected officials close any time soon?
No. Any government that has made significant progress with women elected officials has done it through quotas. The Feminist Majority did a study a few years ago to figure out how many years it would take at the current rate of progress to reach parity in the U.S. Congress. It’s over 300 years.
Do you think we need quotas?
Yes, I do. I would like to see us do what is done in parts of Europe and Scandinavia. You’d almost have to change the whole system. But it certainly could be done. It has been done. The parties split up their candidates and they’re required to put up a certain percentage of women that approaches half in some places, so that the slate is put forward and it’s 50 percent female. But I talked to Laura Liswood, who runs the Council on Women World Leaders, about this a while back and she’s studied it worldwide and she says that to make progress you’ve got to have quotas. And I would put in quotas in more than just elected positions. I would put quotas in corporations that hold public charters and I would say you need to have 50 percent females on your board of directors.
What else should corporations do to help women in the workplace?
They can put gender parity in as part of their management reviews. Al Neuharth, when he started USA Today, he did that. He said part of your review as a manager is going to be whether your department adequately employs and promotes women and men of color. And when they’re held accountable in their paychecks they seem to be able to find qualified people of all colors and both genders. But when they’re not held accountable, it’s just lip service. And that’s pretty much all you get: a couple of token women on a board of, say, 15 people. Right now, for example, there was a big gender discrimination suit filed about a week ago against General Electric. The women are suing the chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, and the board. There’s only one woman on that board. I look at the eight corporations in the Fortune 500 that are headed by women. In those companies the percentage of women on the board is better than double what it is in the rest of the Fortune 500, so it really does make a difference.
It’s clearly difficult to get these men in power to care about gender parity, but it’s also tough to get men to care in general. I’m going to be a junior in college. When I talk about the challenges our society faces with my mostly guy friends, we never really talk about gender discrimination and sexism. So why should young men be feminists and what can young men do in their daily lives to be feminists?
They can take their half of the “crap work” of the world. They can help keep life running other than just going to work. Help with keeping a household together, child care, that sort of thing. Take their partner’s career as important as their own. Those are things young men can do. There is a national poll that’s done about every four or five years where they ask seniors in high school whether they expect to have a marriage and a career. The girls all said they expected to have both. The boys—not all, but some very high percentage—said that they expected to have a stay-at-home wife. So that’s kind of a train wreck right there.
How do you change that mindset?
There are a number of ways you can do it. I think the workplace is a good place to start. Sweden, for example, has paid family leave. If the family wants to take full advantage of it, one spouse cannot have all of the leave. They have to share it. So the men take off and take care of the kids for however long they’re allowed to by the policy because it’s a use-it-or-lose-it policy. But in this country, first of all, we don’t have paid leave. So that’s Problem A. But the unpaid leave that we have is often viewed as the so-called women’s benefit. While men can legally take it, they’re viewed as sissies if they do. They’re not viewed as serious. If you look at any company and who takes the leave, it’s usually women. We need to change that attitude.
Illustration: August J. Pollak