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Women and the Workplace.

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Women and the Workplace


by Marisa Holmes

After decades of fighting for equality in education and the workplace, there have been significant reforms. Second-wave feminists of our mothers’ generation targeted improvements in education and worked against the conventions of the time that discouraged women from going to college or planning for a career. Title IX, signed in 1972, was a major step in the right direction. The statute guaranteed young women equal opportunities in education at any level, free of gender discrimination. Today it is not uncommon to read a headline such as “Girls surge ahead of boys academically,” or “Girls fare better in test results.” Three-fifths of National Honor Society (NHS) members are girls; they tend to outnumber boys in advanced placement classes and graduate from high school with higher grade point averages.

Increased funding for Pell grants, as well as grants earmarked for women in higher learning, also helped a great deal in encouraging women to go to college. As a result, the number of women finishing their first four years of college has increased eightfold. It seems that young women today are encouraged to do well in school, and work towards a career of their choosing. Unfortunately, there are roadblocks to success after college. Women are faced with a cracked glass ceiling, where equality is just out of reach.

Feminists have worked to ensure that when women graduate they have the same opportunities as men. The Equal Pay Act (EPA) gives an individual a right to the same wages and benefits as a person of the opposite sex doing equivalent work. In theory, women are equal in the workplace and should be paid equally. However, the employer is not required to provide the same pay and benefits if it can prove that the difference is due to a reason other than gender.

Sex discrimination isn’t always obvious. Indirect discrimination, where there is a pay difference that affects considerably larger proportions of one sex for no justifiable reason, more often goes unnoticed. Indirect discrimination might include a situation where a woman is paid a lower hourly rate than a man because she works part-time and he works full-time. Does the EPA result in equality or does it just encourage employers to delay or refuse women full-time or higher-ranking positions?

While women are able to get their foot in the door in the business world, they are not progressing at the same rate as men. Women now make up 47 percent of the paid labor force, but many are not advancing in their careers as they had hoped. In June 2003, Euro RSCG Worldwide, an international marketing and communication agency, looked at the difference between women and men in regard to their satisfaction in the workplace. Surprisingly, only eight percent of men surveyed wanted to head companies, while 74 percent, an overwhelming majority, of women did. Women want to succeed, but are they able to within the constraints of the workforce? According to a 2002 Catalyst Census, women account for merely 5.7 percent of the top wage earners in all surveyed companies.

Women comprise merely 13 percent of corporate board members on average, according to a report released by the Annenberg Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in December 2003. The study examined board members, top executives, and women-friendly benefits at fifty-seven of the top Fortune 500 companies. No companies maintained a board with a majority of women serving. The study concluded that there appears to be a “second glass ceiling in place,” making it permissible for men to hold a majority of senior positions but not women. According to the study, “What is even more disturbing is that other studies of companies show that most CEOs believe the glass ceiling is no longer a problem.”

Not only are women unable to advance in their careers as they would hope, they still aren’t being compensated equally, earning approximately 74 cents for every dollar a man earns. The pay gap is not just between women and men. Jane Waldfogel, Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs at Columbia University, studied the pay gap between men and women, and found startling differences between working women themselves. Working mothers take in merely 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn, while childless women of the same group earn 90 percent. Single mothers fared worse, making only 56 to 66 percent of what men make. Women may have the choice to work, but it certainly isn’t rewarding.

Despite inequality, women have opted for the choice to work. The number of women in the workforce has increased dramatically over the last few decades. As of 2000, over 80 percent of women aged 25 to 34 were working. This is a notable jump from 1975, when merely 63 percent were in the workforce. The majority of today’s women will probably have children but are not about to stop working. Of a survey of young women on college campuses in 2004, 83 percent of young women had plans for motherhood and 95 percent had plans for a career. Today, 72 percent of women with a child over one year of age are in the paid labor force. Young women are embracing motherhood alongside their work ambitions. Having it all is still a dream for working women. To make it a reality, women must break the glass ceiling — not merely crack it — and fight for equal pay reform.

Illustration by Emile Ferris

May 2005

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