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Women in the Workplace

By: Yenisse Alonso and Vickie Brint

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With Nancy Pelosi second in the line of succession to the presidency and Hillary Clinton currently vying for the top spot herself, there’s no denying that the role of women in America has changed. The image of the quintessential homemaker at her stove, wearing an apron and tending to her children, has been replaced by the ambitious female executive, in her sleek business suit, working her way up the corporate ladder.

In 1950, only one in every three women entered the workforce; by the 1960s, social and economic forces made higher education more available to women, thus increasing their job opportunities. As a result, more women married later and postponed having children. In 1998, the number of women entering the workforce had climbed to three out of every five women. And in 2006, women comprised 46 percent of the paid workforce. The influx of women has been "one of the most important forces shaping the economy over the past 30 years, influencing economic factors such as average family income, productivity, and consumer behavior," according to Workplace Visions: Exploring the Future of Work, a report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Since nearly half of the workforce is comprised of women, it stands to reason that women should be enjoying the same success as their male counterparts in terms of advancement opportunities and earning capacity. But are they?

According to Rutgers University's Center for Women and Work (CWW), women are still heavily concentrated in the clerical and service sectors in positions regularly deemed "women's work." "Women are almost two and one half times as likely to be channeled into staff jobs...[as] into operating roles where they would be generating revenue and managing profit and loss," says Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization that studies the role of women in the workplace. In 2005, women held 10.6 percent of corporate officer line positions while men held 89.4 percent of such positions, the jobs that many CEOs maintain are essential steppingstones for reaching the most senior levels of the organization. According to Lang, "women have the education, expertise, experience, and ambition to advance to these top positions in much greater numbers….[but] some companies have yet to understand the compelling business case for diversity and women's advancement or to take meaningful steps to develop and retain women leaders."

Women are obtaining more degrees than men at virtually every level of education. In 2005 and 2006, women earned 60 percent of master's degrees and approximately 50 percent of doctoral degrees; by 2011, it is projected that women will earn 2.8 million more undergraduate and graduate degrees than men. Though there is no doubt that women's gains in educational attainment have drawn increased attention to their role in the workforce, women continue to be underrepresented in the most senior level leadership positions.

Catalyst reported that in 2005 women held only 16.5 percent of corporate officer positions and has projected an increase of less than 4 percent by 2010. And the numbers are even worse at the top: In 2006, just 10 Fortune 500 companies were run by women.

According to Dr. Eileen Applebaum, director of Rutgers' CWW, the problem may stem from the fact that the leaders of major companies are still older white males. "You tend to advance when someone with power sees you as having potential," she says. "That often happens when the person in power sees you as a younger version of himself. It takes a certain type of person to recognize that a ‘younger version' doesn't necessarily have to be a younger man."

And struggling to reach the top ranks isn't the only problem women face in the workplace: Women still do not earn the same amount as men for doing the same job. According to the US Census Bureau, "in 2005 women earned 77 cents for every $1 earned by men." This staggering pay differential costs the average working woman "between $700,000 and $2 million over the course of her lifetime," says economist Evelyn Murphy. "Women have come a long way, but are still waiting for equal pay," says economist Heidi Hartmann. "In fact, at the current rate of progress, equal pay will take another 50 years."

Other than blatant sexism, a major cause of the gender salary disparity is the fact that often women temporarily leave the workforce to have children. According to SHRM's Workplace Visions report, "dropping out of the labor force for extended periods of time…has an ongoing influence on future wages." Because women are more likely to leave the workforce or change their work schedules to raise children, they are more "likely to experience ongoing depression in earnings as a result."

So what must women do to achieve equal pay?

A key first step for women is to learn how to ask for equitable compensation and recognition. "The reality is women aren't negotiating money, because most women are reluctant to advocate for themselves," says Carol Frohlinger, whose firm, The Shadow Negotiation, specializes in training women to negotiate more effectively. In a 2002 study, Frohlinger determined that men are more comfortable, and thus more effective, at negotiating compensation than are women.

Frohlinger suggests that women adopt the following negotiating strategies:

  • Scrap the "Babysitter Syndrome": Women need to overcome their disdain for talking dollars, a reluctance instilled in them in their youth. Author Leslie Morgan Steiner writes that in her years as a parent, she's employed about 30 female babysitters, most of whom, when asked what they charged, replied, "Whatever you want to pay me." Steiner coaches sitters on how to set their price and tell their employers what they expect to be paid. Women in the workforce need to follow this sound advice and do the same.

  • Be Prepared: The famous Boy Scout motto holds true for women in the workplace—they need to keep scrupulous records of their accomplishments and achievements and bring these to the negotiating table when talking salary and promotions. A vice president at a major financial services firm stresses that "no one is out there tallying [your accomplishments]." If you think anyone is out there asking how they can pay you more, she says, "you're crazy." You need to make your case for higher pay with convincing evidence.

  • Practice Does Make Perfect: Before entering into negotiations, women should know what they have to say and practice saying it. And, says Frohlinger, "they need to know how to anticipate what they might hear and plan how to respond."

  • It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Even if your company had an off year, that doesn't mean that you did. If you think you deserve a raise or a promotion, ask anyway. Too often, says John McKee, author of 21 Ways Women in Management Shoot Themselves in the Foot, women are "more likely to accept what they're offered." There's no value in selling oneself short; employees who think they're not worth more will have difficulty convincing their boss otherwise.

  • Make your Boss Commit: If negotiating efforts do not succeed immediately, make sure the boss specifies how and when compensation will be readdressed. "No" doesn't have to be the final answer.

  • Consider the Big Picture: Sometimes, it pays for women to lobby for a position of greater responsibility or the chance to work on a high-profile project that may help them advance; such experience may prove valuable in the future and can enhance women's careers, even if it doesn't immediately translate into higher pay.

Still, the objection often raised to gender equality in the workplace can be summed up in one word: motherhood. The argument goes something like this: Women, by leaving their jobs to have children, are costing their employers money in terms of work days lost and training dollars wasted; therefore, their lower salaries reflect this reality. But this bias reveals a short-sighted view about the value of working mothers. Though employers may incur some extra costs to accommodate them when they return to work, employers still have much to gain from retaining such valuable employees.

Deanna Mackey, associate general manager of radio station KPBS in San Diego, California, writes in her online commentary Tales of a Working Mother: "What my employer got in return for supporting my leaves [to have three children] was a level of loyalty and commitment that translates into dollars: money saved in not having to recruit and replace my position…money saved by not losing institutional knowledge that occurs when a long-time employee leaves a company."

The fact is that employers can benefit greatly by offering women work arrangements that allow them to remain committed to both their families and their careers. In an effort to attract and retain top female talent, essential in today's job market with its current talent shortage, employers should take notice of what top companies are doing to promote greater work/family life balance, such as:

  • flexible scheduling
  • increased parental leave policies;
  • networks that assist with the transition back into the workplace;
  • job care subsidies;
  • telecommuting;
  • part-time work;
  • job sharing; and
  • compressed workweeks.

And talented women shouldn't fear asking their employers to help meet their needs. Shelly Lazarus, chairman and chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, a top advertising firm, says that as a young mother, when meetings were scheduled for Sunday evenings, she quite simply told her boss that weekends were reserved for her family. Lazarus' advice to working women is to "set their terms with employers, to have courage to say no—and to realize that if they show their indispensable talents and strengths, chances are employers will accommodate them."

The costs associated with making these accommodations pale when weighed against the unique skills that working women bring to their jobs. Among the traits most often found in women that make them successful in the workplace are empathy, better listening skills, and a more inclusive leadership style, says Herb Greenberg, CEO of Caliper Corp., a consulting firm that is currently conducting a study of leadership qualities among men and women. The study has also found that top female executives are assertive, persuasive, and willing to take risks, all of which translate into corporate success.

Additionally, employers can benefit greatly from the fact that parents seem better at handling stress and multi-tasking, according to research by the Center for Creative Leadership at Clark University. The research also showed that contrary to popular belief, parents are not more likely to be distracted at work by their responsibilities at home; in fact, parental commitment helps them perform better. Employees with families are more likely to take their parenting skills and use them at work to facilitate teamwork, manage time better, and develop a better understanding of others' points of view.

Because working women have so much to offer, Lazarus may be right about employers' willingness to accommodate them. This is just what Lazarus, now a corporate leader, tries to do with her own staff: "I can have talent on their terms or not have their talent, and I take the talent every time," she says.

So, as the global workforce evolves, it seems there are lessons both women and their employers must learn to remain competitive. Fifty years ago, when women began entering the workforce, they encountered resistance and discrimination. Though inequities still exist, women and their employers can derive mutual benefit from eliminating them from the workplace.

© 2007 The Human Equation. All rights reserved. No reproduction, display or sale is permitted without the express written consent of the copyright owner.

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