Women’s History Month – How Far Have We Come?

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How Far Have Women Really Progressed?

We’re taking a detour from my dining etiquette series to dedicate the next three entries to the observance of Women’s History Month. 

As a group, women are increasingly in the news. The female vote in the U.S. has been a key factor in determining the outcome of recent elections, there are new books out to help and encourage women on how to achieve career success and U.S. companies are beginning to develop serious programs to promote women. But, how far have U.S. women really progressed since 1776? Women of a certain age can look back to the beginnings of the modern Women’s Movement in the 1960s with a certain amount of dismay that women have not achieved more.

Let’s Take A Look at the Past…

Before women won the right to vote in their own country, 144 years had passed. For nearly as long, women were not even considered legal persons. When women entered the labor force in any significant numbers –whether they worked in factories, fields, mills or offices–they had to struggle for the very right to be there, let alone for safe working conditions, decent hours and equal pay as men. And, while women were being harassed for doing “men’s work,” they were also compelled to take care of their “women’s work,” i.e., look after hearth and home and bear and rear children. (Hmmm–sound familiar?)

Whether their hands pulled in the harvest or flew over typewriter keys, women were viewed as fit to work only in subordinate positions, and to work harder and longer and for less pay than men. Because of ingrained social customs, women themselves accepted this view. And, the majority of both genders viewed education through the same lens: men needed and deserved an education; women didn’t.  After all, men took care of the important work, like running countries and companies and filling the professions, where women need only be concerned with tending their families. But even in their own homes women were not in charge, as only men could be heads of households.

WWII changed the perception that women could not do the same jobs as men when millions of women entered the labor force taking over manufacturing and other heavy industry jobs, only to lose them when the war ended and the men returned home and reclaimed the jobs women had been performing.

Then came the lull-before-the-storm decade of the 1950s, in which future feminists were evolving and would soon burst into the second wave of feminism (the first wave began in 1848 and culminated in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920).

The 1960s dawned and out of the gate the FDA approved The Pill and President Kennedy established the Commission on the Status of Women. These feats were followed by The Equal Pay Act, Affirmative Action, publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and her founding of The National Organization for Women. With barriers falling, women were now free to join the labor force, earn a decent wage and control when and if they would become pregnant. A powerful new infrastructure was now in place and the Women’s Liberation Movement was in full force. Mad Men were becoming an endangered species.

By the 1970s women were on a roll and wanted more. They wanted to move into the professional-level and managerial jobs that would put them into direct competition with men. They also wanted choice, respect, and job benefits that reflected their needs. Helping to advance these desires was a historical and monumental Supreme Court decision, Ms. Magazine and Mary Richards. Roe V. Wade gave women control over their own bodies and lives, Ms. gave them a title and further autonomy from men—as well as a friend and support system in the media–and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its modern heroine drove these messages home to millions of television viewers every Saturday night for most of the decade. The premise of the sitcom was a young woman in her 30s, unmarried and focused on a career, who lands a job as associate producer of a local nightly news show. Mary wears pant suits, has friends and dates men, but she’s serious about her career and just wants the same opportunities, treatment and compensation as men receive–the same things millions of American women wanted. The character of Mary Richards became the icon of the 1970s American career woman.

Present…

So here we are in 2013, and there are 21 female CEOs in the Fortune 500–only 4.2%. In the U.S. Congress, there are 20 Senators and 77 Representatives who are women-37.7%. On The Supreme Court, three of the nine justices are women, or 33.3%.In the Executive Branch there have been 0 female Presidents in the nearly 237-year history of the United States. And, since Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor under FDR, there has been only a handful of women in Cabinet positions; of the 15 current Cabinet positions, only two are held by women.

Women’s reproductive rights and healthcare coverage continue to be challenged. Women spend twice as much time on child rearing and housework as men. And women still earn less than men. It took the courage of a woman to bring about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which furthered the closing of the loopholes of discrimination.

According to the American Association of University Women, women with the same educational background and marital status in the same types of jobs earn five percent less than male peers the first year out of school, and 12 percent less 10 years later, everything else being equal. In addition, more women than men wind up in lower-paying jobs, thereby compounding the income problem. In my view, this is an ethical issue in the workplace. Women–as the largest underrepresented group that cuts across all ethnic and social affiliations–must achieve equal standing with men in the labor force.

The Movement that surged more than 40 years ago and changed women’s lives appears to be stalled. While it might seem to some that things are going swimmingly for women, in fact we’ve been treading water for awhile and it’s time we resume the strong strokes that will get us to shore—and our destiny.

And Future…

According to Booz & Company, one billion women will be entering the workforce globally over the next decade. Where will those women wind up working? Will there be more female heads of state, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and scientists who will discover and develop life-saving treatments, procedures and medicines? Will those women who work in traditionally female roles draw the higher incomes they deserve? To achieve an acceptable level of ethics, empathy and diversity in the workplace, it follows that women must achieve equality in the workplace.

Please join me next week as we continue to examine the status of women and what the future might look like.

Until next week,

Jeanne

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