Carly Fiorina gives GOP an opening

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Merit-based pay structures are key to lifting women up and closing leadership and pay gaps. That’s what Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, told the Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference this week.

“If you focus on a pay-for-performance system— a true meritocracy where people are recognized, paid and promoted, not on how long they’ve been there, but what they produced — women will rise to the top — not because women are better than men, but because they have half the human potential,” she said.

Fiorina is expected to join the 2016 fray as the Republican Party’s only female candidate. It’s good optics for a GOP that has been ostracized for statements and policies that marginalize women, even if many pundits already have written off a Fiorina candidacy.

Even with her anti-abortion stance, Fiorina provides an opportunity for the Iowa GOP to rise above past caucus seasons run amok by religious-based glad handing and reposition as serious first-in-the-nation caretakers.

Former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina is the keynote speaker during the Iowa Women Lead Change Eastern Iowa Conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Convention Complex in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
Former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina is the keynote speaker during the Iowa Women Lead Change Eastern Iowa Conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Convention Complex in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

It’s doubtful Fiorina will be content with “squealing” her way through a popularity contest. She appears ready not only to blast Democrats for their framing of the GOP as anti-women but to provide a perspective on the economy, national security and other stalwart topics long-lacking in the GOP’s outreach.

Her candidacy has the potential to increase awareness of ongoing gender inequality, especially in corporate circles. Whether or not Iowans can connect with a woman handed a $21 million corporate golden parachute remains to be seen.

About 22 percent of Iowa’s children live in single-parent households led by women. Those households earn a median annual income of about $29,000, and about 41 percent of them live in poverty.

Overall, Iowa women who work full time, year-round earn a median income of $36,000 per year. The median income for men was $47,000.

Would a move to merit-based pay make a difference? Maybe. Outside of a handful of women’s organizations, it hasn’t been truly discussed.

A little more than half of Iowa’s residents are women. Yet, in 2015, women make up 28 percent of statewide elected executive officeholders, 23 percent of the Legislature and 17 percent of Iowa’s congressional delegation. Little wonder how difficult it can be to hear a woman’s perspective amid such male-dominated public policy discussions.

But what negatively impacts women, negatively impacts everyone.

A first-of-its-kind study on recipients of government assistance showed the “hidden cost” of low wages. When workers can’t make ends meet, taxpayers pick up the bill to the tune of about $153 billion each year. Working families receive more than half the resources provided through government assistance programs — Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), Temporary Aid to Needy Families and similar — to bridge the gap between paychecks and living costs. When adjustments are made for inflation, according to the researchers, wages for the bottom 10 percent of workers are 5 percent lower than they were in 1979. And, between 2003 and 2013, inflation-adjusted wages have not increased for the bottom 70 percent of earners.

Other studies have shown the long-term effects of poverty, which pull more from our collective wallets for prisons, substance abuse programs, environmental cleanups and health care. But precious little discussion has taken place on how to transfer those tax dollars to more positive indicators like housing, education and living wages.

A Fiorina candidacy isn’t going to be a magic awareness bullet anymore than moving to merit-based pay is going to help all women, but we all need to start somewhere.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 25, 2015. Photo credit: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette