Over the last four decades, women have entered the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. At the same time, they have pressed for equality with men in terms of level of achievement, promotions, and pay, generally lagging behind because of discriminatory payment practices and a so-called "glass ceiling" that prevents them from advancing as far as they might. The issue now is how far have they come and do the current statistics on the employment of women show progress?
Efforts to protect women in the workplace extend back at least as far as the 1920s. Minimum wage laws covering women and children were enacted in fifteen states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico between 1912 and 1923. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children's Hospital that the District of Columbia's minimum wage law violated the right of contract under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Little data exists to allow for an analysis of the effects of these first minimum wage laws. There are reports that these laws raised the wages of women in particular. However, as Clifford F. Thies writes, "the actual experience with these laws is that, to the extent they raised women's wages, they forced offsetting increases in the productivity of low-wage women, or else they lowered women's employment. That is, these laws restricted the choices available to less productive women and their employers, removing the option of low-wage work" (Thies, 1991, p. 715).
Women have long been given secondary status in the workplace, with lower pay being one of the signs of this. The pay disparity that exists between men and women has a historical basis rather than a rational one. That is, women have only entered the workforce slowly throughout our history and have been shunted off to lower-paying and dead-end jobs for most of that history. Women at one time were denied the education they would need to perform in any better paying occupations. In addition, women were seen as not needing employment as much as did males. Women were expected to marry and to be supported by their husbands. Women's "proper" work was in the home, and work in the home was not paid. Whether true or not, women who worked outside the home were seen as seeking additional money for the family or as indulging themselves in a hobby, and in either case they could be paid less because they were not the primary breadwinner.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were then 116 million women in the United States, and of this group, 68 million were in the labor force either working or looking for work. The participation rate stood at 59.2%, so that women represented 46% of the total U.S. labor force. There were differences in participation according to race, with the figures showing 61.5% black, 58.9% white, 57.6% Asian, and 56.1% Hispanic. Projections show that women in 2012 will make up the same level of the workforce as they did in 2003. Higher levels of education correlate with the likelihood of being in the labor force. In addition, higher educational attainment correlates with lower unemployment rates. Of the women who worked, 38% worked in management, professional, and related occupations, while 35% worked in sales and office occupations (Statistics & Data, 2005).
One of the complaints about women in the workplace, however, is that they are not advanced in the job as men are. Recent statistics suggest that this is still the case. Managers are twice as likely to be men than women. The course of careers differs in several ways:
About a quarter of female employees do administrative or secretarial work. Men are twice as likely as women to be managers and senior officials, and far more likely to be in skilled trades. Similar proportions of men and women work in 'associate professional and technical' occupations, such as computer programmers, technicians and nurses (Working lives, 2004).
Another issue raised is pay disparity, with companies paying less for women workers than for men. In the past, this was justified on the basis that men were heads of households and so needed more money, but in fact, more and more women are heads of households because of death, abandonment, or divorce, all contributing to what has become called the "feminization of poverty." Even today, three out of five workers at or below minimum wage are women. Since the 1970s, the number of women in the paid labor force has increased by 112%, and the percentage of children with mothers in the paid workforce has increased 28%. Over the same period, the gender wage gap decreased by 15 cents to 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, clearly still lagging behind. The argument that men are heads of households and women are not can no longer be justified. Recent statistics show that 48% of working women provide half or more of their family's income, and half of all married women with school-age children provide half or more of their household's income. In 2002, 63% of workers at or below the minimum wage were women. The pay disparity seemed to lessen for a time, but in truth this was not because women were gaining more but because men were losing ground. Between the mid-1980s and 1993, men's earnings dropped as women's earnings increased, narrowing the historic wage gap between them. After 1993, however, men's earnings began to recover, again leading to a wider gap. Considering a lifetime of work, the average 25-year-old woman who works full-time, year-round until she retires at age 65 will earn $523,000 less than the average working man. Considering the current rate of change, women will not achieve equal pay until after the year 2050. In 1976, the ratio was 62 cents to every dollar a man earned, while now it is 77 cents:
For women between the ages of 25 and 29, the wage gap was the narrowest at 84.7% in 2000. The wage gap increases among older workers. For women between the ages of 35 -- 39, the wage gap is 71.9%, and for women between 45 -- 49, it is 73.9% (Facts About Working Women, 2005).
Many reasons have been offered for why women earn less. Women are increasingly a part of the overall labor force, but much of the work done by women is unpaid. Women also hold a lower position in the labor market, earning lower wages. One reason for this is the nature of the dual role that women have assumed in industrialized societies:
Because they have continued to perform unpaid domestic work in the home. . . women have not been able to participate in work outside the home on an equal footing with men (Goldberg & Kremen, 1990, 3).
Women have assumed a dual role in the U.S. almost without it being noted, and they have done so by combining work outside the home with their domestic and child care responsibilities.
Numerous arguments have been made as to why the wage gap is non-discriminatory and therefore is not to be addressed by society because it is caused by characteristics of the workforce itself. Brown, Baumann, and Melnick (1986) cite these arguments which find that the wage gap between female and male earnings is due to such things as job expectations resulting from socialization beginning in the home; educational choices of women who anticipate performing child-bearing and child-rearing functions in the family and who want to participate in the labor force only in a manner which accommodates the performance of those functions, and the desire of women to work in types of jobs which accommodate their family roles and the intermittency of their participation in the labor force. The authors state that there are three basic propositions to be considered: 1) women choose low-paying jobs because of their sociological predispositions; 2) women make educational choices which lead to low-paying jobs; and 3) the interrupted participation of women in the labor force leads to lower pay. Each of these propositions can be challenged.
It has also been shown that women do not advance in their jobs as rapidly or as far as men do as a general rule. The issue was raised in 1990 when Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole developed a "glass ceiling" initiative to try to increase the promotion of women and minority members to top posts in business. Women may have managed to enter the workforce in record numbers, but they have not been able to dispel the pernicious effects of centuries of discrimination and stereotyping with the same rapidity: "Employer decision making has reflected the same stereotypes about male and female capabilities that have constrained employees' vocational choices" (Rix, 1990, p. 183).
Surveys have shown that identical resumes or scholarly articles are rated lower if the applicant or author is thought to be a woman rather than a man: "Man's success is more likely to be attributed to ability and women's to luck" (Rix, 1992,…