Where I began
I started this piece with a little discomfort writing about a topic that I don’t have personal experience with. I am not a woman (in most definitions of the word), but I was hoping to understand the current state of affairs that women undergo in their daily work routines, and perhaps relate to that state through my own experiences (being a minority in every other way except gender). The topic came to mind as I was flipping through channels and ran across the popular series Mad Men, and it made me think about whether in some circles, going to work is just like an episode of Mad Men for female professionals.
This is less a topic of men versus women as it is a topic about the changing dynamics of today’s workforce, and tomorrow’s economy.
Why provide an editorial which tackles an issue that is begin and has been discussed over and over by every major and minor news organization in America? Well, because a diversity of voices is always good for hot debates, and because so much of what’s already out there—especially in the height of a political season—is highly sensationalized.
Female employment in the current market
So let’s start with the fundamentals: the Bureau of labor statistics estimates that somewhere between 63 to 65 million women are in full/partial employment in the economy as of 2010—experiencing high growth in employment, relative to other statistical groups studied in the census – making them a solid one-third of the United States civilian workforce. Women’s labor participation rate (this metric is related to classic employment/unemployment levels) have doubled since 1970 reaching a new high of 60% and way ahead of industrial juggernauts Germany and Japan, while putting on them on par with the average LPR of the entire US economy.
Women’s portion of the labor force is also increasing—by 2018 the size of the female workforce will be up an additional 9% (that’s only a little more than 3 years from now). Women over 65 are estimated to be staying in the workforce after their retirement-eligible date by a factor of 90% more than they did for the previous 10-year-period. It’s not just how many more women work, or the diversity of jobs that they choose, but the more advanced jobs that were previously the exclusive domain of men only. How do they earn these jobs you ask? Well, when we compare the number of women who earned a college degree in 2010 with the number that earned them in 1970, we find that the number has tripled.
These are outstanding statistics, and if you used them to describe other en masse social change, most economists’ heads would be spinning and media personalities would be calling it a revolution.
For most folks, the changes have not been highly noticeable because they’ve taken place over a period of decades and not days or weeks. And for the younger generations, the discussion of the issue just feels a little silly to them altogether signifying the progress made in the last few years. “Women always almost receive equal treatment and work just as much as men in any job,” told me a (female) Georgetown student as I was on campus researching the topic. I felt as if she wanted to say “duh” at the end, but was nice enough to let it go for a fellow Georgetown alum (the fact that I would even dare to ask the question was horrifying to her.)
Why ask this question?
Well the statistics seem to bode well for women and general equality in the workplace—at least they’re moving in the right direction—so why bother ask the question to begin with, right?
Well, because history is a great educator.
We’ve seen similar statistics before and we also recognize the ensuing result: Women stepped up during World War II, and filled vacancies across the US economy (and even globally as well), because a large portion of the men were overseas fighting the big war. During the period of 1940-1950 women held a variety of war-critical and economically-essential jobs, including positions that are as technical as mechanics, welders, builders, and engineers all across the private and public sectors.
Between 1940 and 1945, women’s share of the American workforce went from 27% to almost 37%–that’s more than a third of the war-time workforce. In addition, hundreds of thousands of women joined the US military serving in both domestic and overseas missions in a variety of roles.
Why must we remain vigilant you say? Because when the men came home, the women lost or left their jobs so that men can have gainful civilian employment once again. Women’s labor participation rate dropped at the same time that the war ended and the men began to come home (Acemoglu, 2004). The labor participation rate which reached an astounding 34% dropped to 30% within 1 year of ending the war, while men’s labor participation rate grew from 67% to almost 80% in the same period (if you’re wondering if the numbers, don’t add up to 100%, it’s because of population growth).
So you see, what all that data says is that though work conditions had to improve over time in order to accommodate larger portions of women choosing to become part of the workforce, there are occasions in american history where when the labor force as whole had suddenly decided that women were no longer needed. In other words, when it was no longer convenient to have a great proportion of women as part of the labor workforce, the workforce organically chose to backtrack some of the progress that was previously made.
That alone should be reason enough to continually ask questions about whether women are and will continue to receive their fair share of work and equal treatment when compared to men.
To answer that question “do women continue to face challenges in the workplace that men don’t face,” I decided to speak to and conduct interviews with professional women from many backgrounds (including my wife) to get a sense of what they thought was happening.
I was surprised that most of the people I spoke with felt that the gap between men and women in the workplace has become very small. Several cited problems areas in the finance and technology industries—but for the most part—the consensus was that professional women do not go to work expecting an episode of Madmen.
How things work now
Dr. Theresa Welbourne, Founder and CEO of eePulse, Inc—which focuses on delivering people management services, and someone who has also spent a career in both the business world and in the research world, tells me that when she was starting out her business many years ago, she received an informal finance offer from a venture capitalist that was contingent on her “leaving the business”. When she inquired further, she was told that the man who made the offer didn’t believe that a woman would be able to run it.
Welbourne shared this anecdote while making the case that this kind of behavior is seldom found in today’s world, “[This is a] great time for men and women to be working together. I see some great women leaders [and] I work with great men and women in leadership roles.” Welbourne’s statements are echoed by many I interviewed including female leaders in both leadership and non-leadership roles.
Welbourne cautions however, that although challenges for women in the workplace are not as insurmountable as they once were, that there is still much room for improvement especially in certain environments. “[Though] the number of women in leadership roles has steadily increased, it is still getting more difficult for women to get funding” for entrepreneurial projects and new business startups. When I asked her why she thought this was the case, she told me that there is a male-dominant cultural component in effect when it comes to the finance world in general, creating some challenges that are not faced by men as much as by women.
Challenges faced by women are sometimes caused by other women in the workplace however—at least that’s what Sherryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook outlines in her well-publicized book called Lean In. In her book, which has been called visionary by many, Sandberg makes one argument that seems to put the blame for women’s workplace troubles squarely on women themselves. She tells us that sometimes women don’t go as far as they can in the workplace because they have not made a solid commitment to it. She advises “don’t leave before you leave” meaning that women who seek corporate success should not begin to plan their exit from corporate lives to start a family before they are ready for it. This view has received little criticism, but Sandberg’s overall vision for women did receive some criticism from prominent journalists such as Susan Faludi, who argues that Sandberg is promoting a “corporate-backed” agenda which reduces women to “marketable consumer object[s]”.
On the global front women face hardships that that have long disappeared from American culture, and they are not restricted to the workplace. Whether it is the right to vote, basic human rights, or the complete nonexistence of laws and regulations to help give women an equal voice in society—you name the place—the chances are there is some combination of these conditions. Getting equal rights in the workplace for many of the globe’s female population would be an afterthought to getting equal rights as human beings to start with.
The world-at-large is not without a ray of hope however—while drafting this editorial I came across the story of Major Mariam Al Mansouri from the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces—who took the fight to ISIS and led a squadron of highly-trained F-16 fighter pilots over Iraqi space.
This event, only a decade ago, would never have been possible in that region of the world—which can only mean one thing—progress. This progress represents several important paradigms for the workplace.
The most important one is that unless women’s right, and equality both inside and outside the workplace is not an accepted concept globally, then true progress cannot be mad—because just like America’s female workforce were sent home after World War II—the world’s female workforce, including America’s might be sent home when it is no longer economically convenient a hundred years from now.
The only way to prevent that is to keep asking the question, “Do women still face difficulties in the workplace?”
 Women, War, and Wages: The Effect of Female Labor Supply on the Wage Structure at Midcentury, (Acemoglu, Autor, Lyle, 2004)