There is no denying that women have come a long way in the battle for workplace equality. From a time when opportunities for women were severely limited, until modern day when we can pursue any career path, the change is evident. In honor of Women’s History Month let's examine where this journey began, the obstacles we have overcome, and where we go from here.
A Brief History Of Women At Work
In 1870 the US Census began to record data on women engaged in various occupations. Out of a total 12.5 million women 1.8 million were employed outside of the home. Women comprised 15% of the total workforce. While most of these women were teachers or engaged in some form of sowing, they also held one third of the factory jobs available.
Between 1890 and 1930 women in the workforce were generally young and unmarried. They filled clerical and teaching positions as well as jobs in textile manufacturing and domestic help. They had little education and were expected to leave the workforce once they married.
1930 to 1950 saw an increase in demand for clerical employees. Additionally, two wars caused women to enter the workforce in much greater numbers. More women began graduating from high school and staying in the workforce even after they were married.
This phase lasted from 1950 into the mid 1970s. During this time women began to see themselves as having careers and not just jobs. Their expectations were to go to college and work through their married years.
The final phase began in the late 1970s and continues today. Women began to invest in their future and attain higher levels of education. They entered fields such as medicine, and law which were once only open to men.
Barriers To Women In The Workforce
One of the most significant changes for women occurred when they began to pursue higher education. Not only did this open doors for them professionally, it also allowed them to view themselves differently.
Access to contraceptives caused another shift in the workplace. This gave women the ability to delay starting a family while they completed their studies and entered the workforce. It also meant that women didn’t have as many children to care for giving them more time to focus on their careers.
The most difficult barrier to overcome, and one that we’re still up against today, are stereotypes and people’s perceptions of women. We have come a long way from a time when women were seen as inferior and frail. However many of the assumptions and expectations of women are deeply ingrained in all facets of society and continue to affect us today.
Traits associated with decision making are often viewed as "male." Even when a woman displays those traits she is punished for it as it breaks with the social conventions of how a woman should act. The assumption that a woman will leave the workforce to raise her children often hinders women from obtaining higher positions.
How Can We Improve The Situation?
One important step we can take is to continue passing legislation to support the advancement of women in the workforce. Laws to protect women from discrimination and harassment are important but we also need laws to support women in the workforce.
And not all women have the same opportunities. Minority women struggle even as compared to their white counterparts and many countries are light years years behind when it comes to female empowerment. When thinking about discrimination and gender stereotypes we often envision men holding us back but studies show that women judge other women just as negatively as their male counterparts. This is especially true when women exhibit traits that are viewed as masculine. We all have to work together to bring education and opportunities to women everywhere.
The great progress that women have made proves that change is possible, but it takes time. We need to keep working at it, identify the issues that hold women back, and continue moving forward.