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Gender Equality in the Workplace

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Former New Yorker living in Florida. I'm a writer, film buff, and environmentalist.

Ever since it became the rule rather than the exception for women to work outside of the home, the issue of discrimination in the workplace has been a serious dilemma. Women have consistently been paid less and promoted less often than men, and they have often been treated in a more demeaning and less professional manner than their male counterparts. Despite having made significant gains toward workplace equality over the last few decades, progress has recently been slowed or stalled. Although it’s been over 40 years since the idea of female empowerment first inspired a generation of women to seek independent, professional careers, they are still facing the issue of sexism in the workplace.

Do Women Still Have a Long Way to Go?

Back in the 1970s, only two percent of executives were female. Today, 52% of middle management are women. Obviously, great strides have been made in the last few decades when it comes to women in the workplace. The gap between women’s and men’s salaries has narrowed significantly in the 1980s and 1990s. More women have graduated from college in the 21st century than men have. So why, if that's the case, do women still claim that sexism exists?

Women, on average, get paid 78 cents for every dollar made by a man. Only 14% of Fortune 500 company Board Seats are held by women. Large numbers of female employees in the last ten years have filed class-action suits against their employers for discriminatory treatment, and have been paid out more than $787 million in settlements. Young women fresh out of college typically get a lower starting salary than men who graduated at the same time.

The rationalization had once been that women deliberately chose less high-paying careers than men, such as secretarial, to explain why men in a particular company would make more money than a woman in that same company. That may have been true once but no longer, now that more women are holding mid-level management jobs, with their eyes on a promotion. Ambition is no longer just a male trait in our society. Therefore, career choices by women cannot be used as a legitimate excuse for pay disparities.

Women are less likely to be promoted over a male who is in contention for the same job. The common expression which has been used to describe this situation is “the Glass Ceiling.” This expression is meant to indicate a symbolic barrier in the corporate hierarchy where women are rarely allowed to pass. Women are given many excuses as to why they are passed over for promotion, including the all-too-often used reason that a woman may become pregnant and leave the company to raise a family. A recent story that made the newspapers was the story of a woman who was fired for being “Too pretty”. Her male co-workers claimed she was a distraction and that her dismissal was the best thing for the company. These are two examples of discrimination that prevent women from breaking through “the Glass Ceiling”.

Statistically, because of the higher rate that women are graduating college, it would seen logical that women are the future of the workforce that it would be sensible for employers to start adjusting to this trend and appointing women to corporate officer posts. Surely in the days of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, no one could ignore the fact that women are capable to doing what was traditionally a “man’s job”. However, it seems that corporate America has chosen to ignore this evolution of the workplace because progress seems to have been slowed to a great degree in the past 10 years.

The gains in salary that women acquired over the eighties and nineties have not only leveled off but have, in fact, dropped off to the point where men’s salaries are pulling far ahead once again. The number of women promoted to board seats in Fortune 500 companies, which had been steadily increasing in the late 20th century, has dropped over the past three years. Apple Computers has appointed only one female board member since 2010 and Microsoft only two. Only 31 percent of corporations have more than three female corporate officers, while the number of corporations who have no women officers at all at the top has increased by 10% in the last year. This trend of reversal in the female rise to corporate equality has set back the movement so badly that some experts predict it will take another 70 years before actual equality can be achieved.

Another aspect of discrimination against women in the workplace concerns how they are treated. Are they being treated professionally and fairly? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, incidents of sexual harassment lawsuits in corporate America have remained high, with companies paying out over $700 million in damages in the past 10 years. Women still report being spoken to or touched in a non-professional manner. The long fight for equality is far from over.

What is the reason for this sudden lack of momentum in the race for equality? One reason could be that women have become more complacent than they had been in recent years. Given the strides women have made in positions and salaries, it seemed safe to assume that sexual discrimination was dying and that there was no more need for women to be militant. However, without a movement behind them, women seem to have lost their leverage and therefore have seen their near-victory tumble backward. Perhaps women need to become militant once again in order to regain the momentum they seem to have lost.

The history of the woman’s movement and the crisis of inequality goes back over forty years. Although women first began entering the workplace in mass numbers during world war two, the trend did not last and the 1950s was a wasteland for women’s rights. However, things changed for women in 1963 when The Feminine Mystique was published.

Published in February of 1963, the Feminine Mystique is credited with starting the concept of feminism in America. Written by Betty Frieden, the book describes what was called “the problem with no name”, which was essentially the ennui and depression of women who were unhappy having no greater goals or challenges in life than being a mother and housewife. Women of the day were completely dependent on their husbands for all their material comforts and security.

The book shattered the myth that all the women of America were happy with this status quo. The book points out that women were viewed as akin to children who needed to be taken care of, rather than taking care of themselves. Even when women went to college, they were steered toward non-challenging curriculums such as home economics. Frieden encouraged women to think for themselves and to resist the limitations that have left them stagnant for so long.

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The Feminine Mystique created such a sensation that it inspired millions of women to get jobs or to get a good education. It also encouraged congress to pass the Equal Pay Act the same year, which prohibits employers from discriminating salary amounts depending on sex. Despite resistance from traditionalists, more and more women began entering the workforce. In 1966, Friden helped found NOW (The National Organization for Women), which was followed by the Professional Women’s Caucus (PWC), the Federally Employed Women (FEW), and the Women’s Equality Action League (WEAL). In 1968, female student organizations began what was known as the “rap group”. Women, who had been structurally deprived of interactions with large groups of other women now began to band together. The “rap groups” became a mechanism for social change. This group solidarity allowed women to become more militant than ever before. In the 1970s, this spread of Female Consciousness led to what became known as the Women’s Liberation Movement or the Feminist Movement. This movement brought about sweeping cultural and social changes regarding the place of women in our society, particularly in regards to women’s ever-increasing role in the workplace. The 1980s and 1990s were decades of remarkable progress for women in business. The ramifications of the movement continued until only recently when it has paused.

The situation seems to indicate that women need to become militant again, just as they did in the 20th century. They need to regain their momentum if they don’t want to wait 70 years until they level the playing field. Can this be done? Now that women are no longer prisoners in the home, is it possible to reignite the passion that once motivated the creation of NOW and the “rap groups” and women’s liberation?

What barriers are there to the implementation of workplace equality? What factors could hold progress back? One problem may be a lack of forcefulness and confidence in some women. Women have been conditioned to expect less than men get so they tend to be satisfied with less. They do not negotiate or “play hardball” the way a man in her position might. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that women who are aggressive and who push for what they want are often considered unlikable or labeled as having a bad attitude. They might be seen as someone who will be a problem in the office. The same strong negotiating that might be laudable for a man is considered unseemly for a female. This is another reason women are less likely to ask for a raise or promotion.

Married women are also less likely to be assertive about a rise since they have the safety net of a husband who, in general, has a higher salary than she does. In our society, we’re all trained to believe the husband’s career is more important than the women’s, so a married woman is apt to be less focused on getting ahead. A married woman is often seen to be providing “a second paycheck” to supplement the primary breadwinner.

Pregnancy becomes another hurdle for women. The number of women who have filed suits claiming discrimination because they are pregnant has been growing, even while birthrates have been dropping. Complaints of pregnancy discrimination have jumped 32% in the past 15 years. This makes pregnancy suits the most frequent type of lawsuit leveled against employers in the United States. The complaints range from women in entry-level positions to top-level corporate officers. Women say they have been fired or denied promotions due to their pregnancy.

It is assumed by employers that a woman will have a child at some point and that the child will take precedence over her career. Other employers use the excuse that they fear for the health and safety of a pregnant employee if she has to do anything physical. Some companies do not even guarantee that a woman will still have a position when she returns from maternity leave.

Discrimination against pregnant women is a serious issue since women of child-bearing age makeup 47% of the nation’s workforce in the early 21st century and are expected to account for more than half by 2013. Furthering the problem is that women are having children later in life when their careers are firmly established and therefore more is at stake financially than for a young woman just starting out. A woman who has been in the company for 15 years and has a six-figure salary has more to lose than the recent college graduate who is getting her foot in the door with a $50,000 dollar entry-level position.

Companies see pregnant workers as a liability, especially in this era of rising health costs, which companies provide. It’s even more problematic for small business owners, who need every worker they can get. They need to replace the absentee employee. Also, research has shown that employers see pregnant women as more fragile and less reliable and therefore less competent than other employees. Surprisingly, this view is held by fellow female employees as well as men. These factors drive employers to discriminate against pregnant women, hence the increase in lawsuits. Lawsuits of this nature have cost companies to pay out over $30 million a year in settlements since 2003.

Some employers would argue that sexism doesn’t exist anymore and point to statistics of female employment as proof. They say that because we’re in a meritocracy, all failure to advance in the corporate world is due to weak performance, rather than any perceived sexism on the part of the employer. Some might not even be aware of their own unfair actions. They may truly believe that “Glass Ceiling” doesn’t exist.

What recommendations can be made regarding ways to curtail the problem and get the momentum back into the movement toward workplace equality again? One problem that needs to be dealt with is the unwillingness on the part of many women to discuss the matter. People who have done studies on discrimination in the workplace have often found it difficult to find women willing to speak to them about it. This is partly because they don’t want to raise the ire of their superiors by exposing their biased treatment.

Another reason for this silence is that some women don’t want to be “gender wimps”, meaning women who use their sex as an excuse for why they failed to climb the corporate ladder. They want to believe that if they play by the same rules as males, they can beat the men at their own game. Despite this optimistic attitude, there is a clear difference in the way men and women are treated and more women need to open up about it if they are to regain that group social consciousness that spurred on the 1970s feminist movement.

To sum up the situation, the state of woman’s equality in the United States has come a long way since the Feminine Mystique and the “rap groups”, with women on the verge of becoming the majority of the national workforce and already making up more than half of the country’s middle management. However, the long climb has slowed in the last three years and needs to be reignited otherwise it make take another seven decades for workplace equality to be reached. No doubt the economic downturn of the last few years has contributed to the problem but that does not explain why men’s salaries are pulling further ahead of women once again. Women cannot become too complacent about equal treatment in the workplace because while they have come close, they haven’t made it yet and the recent sloth of the once energized women’s movement threatens to derail all efforts if more attention and militant thinking aren’t used for the problem.

The phrase “so close and yet so far” sums up the situation.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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