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The Women's Movement in the '70s, Today: 'You've Come a Long Way,' But …

To celebrate Workforce Management's 90th anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at important workforce-related issues with a then-and-now theme. This installment examines women in the workforce in the 1970s and today.

May 15, 2012
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Gloria Steinem

A new social movement took center stage in the 1970s. It followed the lead of the civil rights movement, as well as the mounting protests against the Vietnam War. In this volatile era, the women of the nation were determined that their voices be heard above the din of discontent.

"I am woman; hear me roar," went the lyrics of a popular Helen Reddy song from 1972.

"A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" went another popular slogan frequently used by activist Gloria Steinem. The phrase suggests an independence and stature for women that still, four decades later, is not fully realized. Even with a string of laws and legal wins that have advanced women's positions in the workplace, advocates say there is still a long way to go.

"We take five steps forward and 10 steps back, but we try to keep moving forward and not get too discouraged," says Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which supports social and economic justice for all women. "We really try to be advocates, and that's what the women's movement has been all about. I feel we really need to stand up for the gains that we've made over the last century or so and not let them slip."

Outspoken leaders of the women's liberation movement, like Steinem and Betty Friedan, aimed to raise women up from home and work situations that they considered subjugation. And both forward-thinking college students and working women organized marches and protests for equal rights in the workforce. One of the more noteworthy rallies was the Women's Strike for Equality where an estimated 50,000 women marched in New York and another 100,000 women across the country in August 1970 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave U.S. women the right to vote.

"You've come a long way, baby," was another popular saying of that era, which originated on cigarette advertisements meant to acknowledge the giant strides of the women's movement.

But judging from a January 1975 article in Personnel Journal, the forebear of Workforce Management, some of the concepts embraced by the women's movement, including equality in the workplace and the C-suite, were not going over well in tradition-bound workplaces.

In "What Does It Take for a Woman to Make It in Management?" by Marion M. Wood, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, a list of 10 attributes was offered as requisites for women's success: 1) competence; 2) education; 3) realism; 4) aggressiveness; 5) self-confidence; 6) career-mindedness; 7) femininity; 8) strategy; 9) support of an influential male; and 10) uniqueness.

Additionally, Wood quoted an unnamed male Equal Employment Opportunity director as saying, "For a woman to succeed, there must be a man in her life who believed it's the right thing to do."

The women's movement of the '70s was in part a reaction against the type of happy homemaker that was often portrayed in television sitcoms of previous decades. Like it or not, girls growing up in the '50s would have been exposed to role models such as the housewives in Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best, women whose career goals were getting the kids off to school and serving dinner on time. A working woman as role model didn't come along until the late 1960s and early 1970s when shows such as Julia—where Diahann Carroll starred in the first nonstereotypical network TV role for an African-American woman as Julia Baker, a single mom who worked full time as a nurse—and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Moore portrayed Mary Richards, a career-oriented single woman who is a news producer for a TV station in Minneapolis.

Today, women comprise nearly half of the U.S. labor force. While 70 percent of families in 1960 had a stay-at-home parent, now 70 percent of families have either both parents working or a single parent who works. In two-thirds of all households, women are either the main breadwinner or the co-breadwinners, according to the Center for American Progress. In 40 percent of all households, women are the only wage earners. Yet on average, women in the workplace earn 20 percent less than men doing comparable jobs,

Over the past several decades, a variety of laws and rulings have paved the way for more Mary Richards to succeed at work. Among the first was the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

And, truth be told, the wage gap was even wider in the early '60s. When President John F. Kennedy signed the bill banning wage discrimination, women were making only 58 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Other landmark legislation followed that was intended to improve worklife for women, while making it easier to meet the dual demands of work and family. In 1978 the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.) In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was passed. It entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law, giving workers more leeway to sue for paycheck discrimination.

Conservative commentators take issue with this act, as well as the validity of the gender wage gap. In a recent article in the online libertarian magazine Doublethink, the Ledbetter Act is said to force businesses "to constantly look over their shoulders" for claims rising up from the past. "This is a trial lawyer/class action lawsuit boondoggle," writes columnist Nicole Kurokawa Neily, "and that's bad for the American economy."

But other observers defend the Ledbetter act as vital to fairer pay for women. And advocates say there is more to do to make the workplace a level playing field for both sexes.

"I think the current laws are important and a great start," says Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel for the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., "but I don't think they're the end of the conversation by any means. They're a good baseline structure that establishes the crucial principle that women are entitled to equal treatment on the job."

For example, Martin recently testified at an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing on pregnancy discrimination, which was ostensibly outlawed in 1978. Yet the EEOC reports that complaints from pregnant workers are on the rise, with 5,797 complaints in fiscal year 2011 alone. Most complaints stem from wrongful firing, while about 10 percent are from unlawful failure to hire.

At the Feb. 15 hearing, EEOC general counsel P. David Lopez stated, "At the core, all of these cases involve employers who held stereotypical assumptions about pregnant women."

Adriana Kugler, chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, tells Workforce Management that lingering stereotypes and biases play a large role in keeping women from achieving equality in the workplace. "There are expectations from employers that women want to have a family and won't be as committed, and so they're not even offered an opportunity," she says.

Women tend to outperform men academically, while they are held behind in the workplace. According to the 2010 census, 36 percent of women age 25 to 29 had college degrees compared with 28 percent of men in that age group. A December 2011 report by the Harvard Independent states that since 1980 not only are more women than men enrolled in higher education, but also more women graduate with honors.

Yet, in Fortune 500 companies women account for just 7.5 percent of top earners, and only 3.6 percent of those companies' CEOs are women.

Kugler says that, among employers, there's a widespread but unexpressed belief that women cannot fully commit to job responsibilities, work-related travel and time away from home. She points to a 1997 study by two women economists from Harvard and Princeton universities of major orchestra auditions that showed that when the auditions were blind, women were as likely as men to be hired as musicians who would be expected to go on the road and to make considerable time commitments to the job. But when interviewed in person, men were hired more often than women.

"You know," Kugler says, "the sound of a beautiful instrument should be the same whether it's played by a man or a woman. But the employer has stereotypes about what kind of a commitment a woman is willing to make."

To make it easier for a woman to commit to her job, especially when trying to juggle work and family, existing laws need to be updated, some observers say. Dina Bakst, co-president of A Better Balance, a legal team in New York City specializing in work-family issues, says, "Our laws and policies are really out of date. The FMLA was a monumental piece of legislation, but it doesn't go far enough. We need paid leave and workplace flexibility."

Bakst says 178 countries have paid family leave for new mothers, and 50 countries give paid leave to new fathers. Meanwhile, some states have passed their own legislation. Laws requiring paid family leave are on the books in California, New Jersey and Washington. A similar law has been introduced in New York's Legislature.

"Paid family leave is a seriously important policy that many companies recognize as being good for the bottom line and have for their own employees," Bakst says. "You'll see many fantastic companies that do provide some form of paid leave because they know it's good for business."

As for the disparity between wages earned by men and women, there was slow but steady improvement in closing that gap after the 1963 Equal Pay Act became law. But once the female equivalent of a man-earned dollar passed 70 cents in 1990, progress began to sputter. "The pay gap really narrowed for about 30 years, and it has stalled for the past decade or so," Kugler says.

The issue has not lacked attention. Indeed, it has its own unofficial holiday, April 17, which is meant to show how long a woman must keep working into the next year to earn the equivalent salary earned by a man in the previous year. And this year on Equal Pay Day, the U.S. Labor Department announced seven winners of its Equal Pay App Challenge. Teams of software developers devised their own free mobile phone applications to apprise job hunters of pay disparities and to offer tools, such as negotiation skills, for improving one's chances for landing a better-paid job. (Links to the Equal Pay Apps can be found at tinyurl.com/78ycsgu.)

Incidentally, encouraging female workers to learn salary negotiation skills is not a new idea. In Wood's Personnel Journal article from 37 years ago, lack of such skills was cited as a reason women were often held back from management positions. "Traditionally, women have not been trained to bargain," she wrote. "Most have not learned that a salary offered is not a constant, but a starting point for discussion. Men … will continue considering women 'cheap help' as long as women continue to accept lower offers than they are worth."

Disparities in men's and women's paychecks still exist in most professions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey of 2009, the gap was greatest in the financial services industry, with women making about 70 cents to a man's dollar. Even in teaching, which has traditionally been a woman's profession and today is 80 percent female, women's wages are lower. "In 2010, women in teaching professions were earning only 80.9 percent of their male counterparts' wages," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.5 million people.

Making its way through Congress now is the Paycheck Fairness Act. It would require disclosure of compensation while outlawing retaliation against employees who seek information about other workers' salaries. According to Martin of the National Women's Law Center, it would "tighten some of the loopholes" in the Equal Pay Act, namely loose interpretations that have allowed some employers to justify wage discrimination.

The case of Sheila Davidson of Philadelphia illustrates what the Paycheck Fairness Act is all about. Last November Davidson won her wage discrimination claim against her employer, Amtrak. Davidson had just been promoted when she learned that a man, doing the same job she had previously performed, was being paid a higher salary, higher even than what Davidson was earning after her promotion.

What gave Davidson an advantage is that she works in human resources for Amtrak and thus has access to compensation information. If the Paycheck Fairness Act gets passed, average employees would have access to similar data.

Philip Kovnat, the EEOC lawyer who represented Davidson in her lawsuit against Amtrak, remarked that it was not uncommon for HR people to file their own EEOC complaints. In fact, Davidson had been filing EEOC complaints on behalf of other employees for the previous eight years and had worked as an HR professional for 25 years. In the end, a federal court in Philadelphia directed Amtrak to pay her $171,483 in back pay, along with damages and attorney fees, and raised her pay by $16,505.

Susan G. Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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