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'The Indicator from Planet Money' sheds light on the 'winner-take-all' problem


June Carbone and her co-authors set out to write a book on the march toward workplace equality. It was called "Fair Shake: Women And The Fight To Build A Just Economy." But they found the march has slowed. Our colleagues over at The Indicator from NPR's Planet Money Wailin Wong and Adrian Ma explain.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Despite all the progress women have made in the workforce, there are signs that it's also been stalling - little growth in the number of women in top leadership roles. And for the past couple decades, the gender pay gap has barely budged.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: And even though women earn more college degrees than men, the gender pay gap among college grads has actually gotten wider in recent decades. June Carbone is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and one of the authors of "Fair Shake."

JUNE CARBONE: Where the disparities have increased is among the most highly educated, and that's even more true with doctors, lawyers, et cetera.

MA: So what was your reaction to that?

CARBONE: We were kind of stunned by it.

MA: And the question June and her co-authors puzzled over was, why? It couldn't just be what they called the conventional explanations - right? - like old-fashioned sexism or the fact that women, whether by choice or because of social pressure, tend to gravitate towards certain jobs or prioritize family over career more than men do.

WONG: Those have always been factors. They don't explain why progress for women began stalling about 30 years ago.

CARBONE: The more we looked, the more we realized, oh, there's a different story here.

WONG: And that story is something they describe as the winner-take-all approach to business. This is a systemic shift in business culture they say places women at a disadvantage.

MA: Companies that adopt a winner-take-all approach prioritize winning at all costs. They do ethically questionable or sometimes straight-up illegal things in pursuit of short-term goals, like pumping up the stock price.

WONG: Think Wells Fargo, where managers pressured employees to boost their revenue by opening millions of accounts under customers' names without telling them.

MA: Or Uber, which grew into the giant it is today in part by breaking local transportation laws.

WONG: So why does this all put women at a disadvantage?

CARBONE: First, if you don't compete on the same terms as the men, you lose. Second, if you do compete on the same terms as the men, you lose because women are disproportionately punished.

WONG: June cites, for example, this Harvard Business School study that looked at people who worked in finance. It found women were dramatically less likely than men to commit financial misconduct. However...

CARBONE: If they do commit misconduct, they are more likely to be fired and less likely to be rehired than men who commit misconduct.

MA: Some social scientists refer to these sorts of work environments as masculinity contest cultures. And June says the research shows they tend to attract certain kinds of people.

CARBONE: The people who thrive in that environment tend to engage in high levels of sexual harassment, bullying, favoritism. Companies that operate like this can't maintain diversity because they push women out.

WONG: In the end, June and her co-authors argue for changes they say could chip away at this winner-take-all culture - like people speaking out against abusive behavior, more gender diversity, government investment in childcare and paid family leave, and stronger regulation of misbehaving companies.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.