The persistence of the no-problem problem

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The persistence of the no-problem problem

by Brenda D. Frink on Monday, January 31, 2011 - 5:05am

Deborah.RhodeIn 1990, Professor Deborah L. Rhode identified what she called the “No-Problem Problem.” Despite the persistent issues of sexual violence, political and economic inequality, work force segregation, and inequitable division of household labor, the gender revolution seemed to be stuck and activism on women’s issues was tepid. Rhode believed the problem was a lack of public awareness about the extent of gender inequality--a belief that women were moving up, barriers were breaking down, and justice was just around the corner. As she explained in an article in Yale Law Journal, “a central problem remains the lack of social consensus that there is in fact a problem.”

At “Beyond the Stalled Revolution,” a recent panel event hosted by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Rhode and others met to assess the recent history of the feminist movement and to propose strategies for the future. As Rhode told the audience, the No-Problem Problem is still with us, even though twenty years have passed since she first coined the phrase while serving as the Clayman Institute’s Director.

Progress for women in recent decades includes narrowing the pay gap, guaranteeing unpaid parental leave, passing landmark protections for victims of domestic violence, and appointing increasing percentages of women to leadership positions. However, women still remain dramatically underrepresented in positions of greatest social, economic, and political power.

Rhode asked the audience to consider the following: “Women account for 40 percent of MBA students but only 3 percent of CEOs in Fortune 1000 companies. Women are half of law students, but under a fifth of equity partners at major law firms. Women earn over half of college and Master’s degrees, but account for only about a quarter of full professors and a fifth of college presidents.”

Rhode_Beauty BiasIn order to explain how the No-Problem Problem works, Rhode drew on her recent book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law. The book documents the pervasiveness of discrimination based on appearance, and the unwillingness of most members of the public and of policy bodies to see it as a social problem.

As Rhode argues, women rate appearance as crucial to their self-esteem, and they invest enormous and often unproductive amounts of time and money on grooming and weight reduction programs. Women who fall short of cultural beauty ideals are disadvantaged in jobs, salaries, and promotions even where looks bear no obvious relationship to performance. Surveys find that workers report as high a frequency of discrimination based on looks as on race or sex. What perpetuates the problem, Rhode argued “is the failure to see a problem, and to treat our preoccupation with appearance as a political and legal issue, not just a personal one.”

Despite the challenges posed by the No-Problem Problem, Rhode was optimistic about the future of gender relations, predicting major changes in the roles of women and men over the next decades. One promising strategy would be to enlist more men as allies. “Women’s issues,” said Rhode, “are not just issues for women: they are ones in which society as a whole has a stake.”

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Deborah L. Rhode, who is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, discusses the No-Problem Problem in her book, Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality. This article is the fourth in a five-part series on the “Beyond the Stalled Revolution” panel.