Andrew Cuomo's Pink Ghetto

In the last election, Gov. Andrew Cuomo became the poster child for feminism. Rallying women to his newfound cause, the governor created the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) in “answer to the assaults on the basic rights of women and our lack of progress,” as per the website. No, he didn’t include any women in the decision-making process. Nor did he consult any experts on the complex history of the women’s rights movement. But he got into a pink bus and listened to a lot of Destiny’s Child.

Beyoncé could be heard banging her head against a wall.

When the WEP burst into existence many speculated that the governor’s true motive was to undermine the Working Families Party. But the policy gains of the feminist agenda itself sustained far greater damage.

Sexism, like racism, is a relational issue. Women are not the primary cause of their own discrimination, although the “fix the woman” model is a popular solution to structural inequality. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is the CEO of 20-first, a consultancy that works with companies to achieve gender balance. “The 20th century was all about women waking each other up, but the 21st century is about men, companies, and political organizations recognizing the consequences of this revolution,” she says. She’s a proponent of gender mainstreaming or the normalization of equality through systematic reform. The approach conceives of men as major stakeholders in social advancement, rather than bystanders in support of “women’s issues.”

Yet, men were few and far between at events for the WEP. Targeted mail went exclusively to women. I personally received an avalanche of pink postcards, while the male voter at my address got flyers touting the governor’s record on tech, infrastructure and jobs.

After the election, the governor’s campaign told Capital New York that the party’s next step was to more actively engage female voters, even though women are already 54 percent of the electorate. Essentially the WEP problematizes women, which undermines the reality of gender inequality and excludes men from the solution. To make matters worse, the campaign’s stated vision for a women’s party is to “advocate for initiatives, programs and legislation that advances their cause.” The possessive noun—their—creates a pink ghetto.

“If you marginalize us into a separate party then it’s just our problem, not everybody’s issue,” explains state Sen. Liz Krueger.

But the WEP is more than just condescending; it’s counterproductive. “Anything that bundles everything about women into a single bucket is not going to be effective,” says Wittenberg-Cox.

Take economic issues. In New York State, women’s workforce participation is just 56 percent. But increasing participation isn’t just about advancing women. 

For Cathy Minehan, chair of the Boston Women’s Workforce Council, it’s all about the bottom line: “There’s a gap between the skills that businesses need for the future and the existing labor force.” That’s why Minehan started 100% Talent: The Boston Women’s Compact, a public-private partnership which understands that gender equity is a competitive advantage for companies.

Over 60 companies have pledged to hand over employee data to the compact for an independent gender audit.

Imagine if the governor channeled his tremendous clout to make gender audits a condition of any state contract, making wages, promotions and related policies transparent? Instead of just blaming the state Legislature, Cuomo could secure commitments from his corporate donors to implement robust paid parental leave policies, on-site childcare and flexible work schedules.

Top Cuomo donors like Verizon, Cablevision and AT&T offer as little as zero to six weeks paid leave for new mothers, while enjoying big tax breaks and legislative benefits. The governor’s top real estate donors wouldn’t even return calls requesting information on leave policies. Incidentally, the same donors overwhelmingly backed a GOP state Senate, which only supports nine out of 10 planks of the Women’s Equality Act.

But rather than offer actionable solutions, the governor repeats an oversimplified and imprecise slogan that women only earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar.

Gender policy doesn’t fit easily onto a bumper sticker. The research is extensive and the data can appear conflicting. It requires a serious and sophisticated understanding to effectively advance an agenda.

At this point, the very least the governor can do for women is nothing at all: let the WEP die.