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Women at Work: Have we come far enough?

Posted Wednesday, November 2, 2011, at 8:22 PM

Devin Napoli

All too often do I hear an assumption that makes my skin crawl: the women's movement was a success; women are now free to work any job a man can without having to experience sexism. However, if this is true, why do I meet so many women who work 2-3 low-paying jobs in order to support their families? Often, these women are mothers who got an early start on building their families and had little time for career building. When compared with men who accepted the responsibility of fatherhood at the age of 18, there exists a serious gap in "success rate" regarding career. It seems that low-earning men are frequently in representative positions such as sales reps or front desk managers, whereas women are usually found with domestic-type jobs, such as housekeeping. Regarding service-based work, "women's work" is again domestic--usually housekeeping or babysitting. "Men's work" is slightly less accessible in that it typically requires a specific set of skills--skills that have been traditionally taught to men--such as mechanical and plumbing. These skills receive a higher payout than mopping or dusting certainly would. The women's movement was a success, but only to an extent -- accessibility within the workplace has opened up for women, but the structure of our society still creates circumstances that sometimes make it difficult for women to work at the same level as their male counterparts.

In order to correct these systems, it's important to recognize the original societal structures that have lead to the inequality that we face today: the root of women's work. Since puritanical times, white women were viewed as domesticians, expected to rear the children and keep house. Black women were slaves--exploited "members" of their owners' household, expected to scrub their Masters' houses and care for their children. In both situations, women were unpaid domestics.

Now let's fast-forward past emancipation, past the women's editorial boom of the 1850s, past the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in which hundreds of working-class immigrant women lost their lives, and yes, even past women's 19th amendment triumph. Let's skip ahead to the most recognized beginning of American Women's work: their participation in World War II. During World War II, more than 6 million women took on wartime jobs in either factories or at farms; 3 million women volunteered for the Red Cross and more than 200,000 served the military. According to Andi Zeisler's book Feminism and Pop Culture, "WWII and the years immediately following it, in fact, were at a time when the images of women in advertising literally dictated to them their roles in society. WWII positioned women as central to the war effort. But these images changed once the war was over and the boys came home. The media forces that had hurried women into factories were now herding them back into the home to make room for men -- for whom, it was understood, the workforce was their rightful place. Women were no longer wooed with images of themselves as welders or military nurses; instead, the postwar era of advertising ushered in a new set of representations of women as dutiful wives and mothers."

However, after being in the workforce, returning to the kitchen was the last thing some women wanted. An article published in Mail Online called "Six decades of the glass ceiling" shares the stories of women who entered the workforce from the 1950s to now. The women who were hired in the '50s and '60s discussed how getting a job was about charisma and good looks. Both women worked as secretaries and said all of their bosses were men who sometimes stuck them with domestic tasks like making runs to the drycleaners. During this time, the pay rate for women was half as much as men. The woman who entered the office during the '70s explained that the attitude about having only male bosses hadn't changed -- it was simply the norm. She felt that the only way to get ahead was to be her own boss and set up a rival company. But when she and a male partner went to get a start-up loan, the Lloyds Bank manager suggested that she take a lower salary than her partner in order to reduce their borrowings; it was "only sensible" since she had a husband supporting her.

During the 1970s, 59 cents on the dollar was all a woman made. Nowadays, a woman makes 77 percent of what a man makes. Although this growth seems significant, recent evidence indicates that women's advances may not be quite so robust after all. According to Macro International Inc. economist Stephen J. Rose and Heidi I. Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, "the typical woman actually earns only 44 percent over much of her career."

So, why the pay gap? As it turns out, outright discrimination against women probably accounts for a small percentage of the pay gap. Apparently, securing higher wages requires a 15- year commitment. According to Hartman and Rose, "anyone who drops out risks derailing their career and permanently slashing their pay. Just one year off cuts a woman's total earnings over 15 years by 32 percent. The work world penalizes men nearly as much; their average pay drops by 25 percent if they take a year off. However, fewer than 8 percent of men are likely to do so." (all of the quoted information comes from the article Why the Gap Remains a Chasm by Aaron Bernstein).

So the real reason women aren't earning as much as men is largely attributed to the same domestic structures we had back in the puritanical times. Our economic system is still based on a family division of labor; family responsibilities are still largely considered to be a woman's responsibility, and employers haven't yet found a good way to mix that in with job demands. Taking another look at the glass ceiling article, history seems to confirm that trying to raise a family has been a hindrance on women's work. The woman who entered the work field in the '60s reported that "there was no maternity leave, you gave up work at six months pregnant and your job wasn't held open."

Likewise, the woman in the '70s was passed over for a promotion because she became pregnant; her boss told her that she couldn't attend meetings because "no one wanted to look at a fat woman." The woman in the '80s reported having to keep hush about family life. Although she received maternity leave, it was made clear to her that any indication of being a mother should be kept at home. The woman from the '90s decided that it would be best to run an at-home business so that she could feed her child while conducting conference calls.

To no avail, the U.S. government is the only industrialized western government that doesn't offer extended maternity leave or office daycare services to its employees. Is this systematic limitation the reason why only 7% of women are top wage earners? Is the heavy consequence for having to take time off the reason why only 2.5% of CEOs are women? As it appears, domesticity seems to be women's largest glass ceiling. The women's movement has been successful in getting women out into the work field, but until society changes its view on supporting mothers within the workplace, women will always find themselves having to be ushered back home.



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Devin Napoli
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Devin Napoli is a third-year student at Cottey College, enrolled in one of the school's new four-year offerings. She's studying English with a focus in women's writing, and is spending some time with the Nevada Daily Mail as an intern this semester.
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