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Perspectives on Women’s Progress in the Workforce—Voices of Women Leaders

by Caroline Hopper

As I near my college graduation, the prospect of entering the workforce at the tail end of a historic recession is intimidating. While it should no longer be the case, it is even more intimidating to enter the job market as a woman. Despite decades of civil rights laws banning discrimination and countless milestones in the feminist movement, evidence indicates that women like me who are entering the work force, could still face gender discrimination.

Discrimination was the norm for previous generations of working women. I spoke with Susan Scanlan, President of Women’s Research & Education Institute and Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), about her experience as a young professional. For Scanlan, sexism was obvious from the moment she walked into her first professional interview.

Scanlan was asked in her interview if she was planning to get married soon and, if so, if she was planning on becoming pregnant shortly after. “Among the questions I was asked in my interview: ‘Do you understand that the ladies on our staff must maintain an attractive appearance and may never wear slacks to work?’” said Scanlan. “This was long before sex-segregated Help Wanted ads were outlawed.”

Scanlan accepted the job offer. “I was grateful to earn three-quarters the salary of the entry-level man in the office,” she said. “They had high school degrees; I’d just completed a master’s at Tulane University.”

Scanlan’s first “real” job was on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to Rep. Charlie Wilson in 1972. But between 1965 and 1971, she worked as a clerk and typist for the U.S. Army during her summers off from college and graduate school (she once typed 100 words a minute with no errors in a competition).

“The professional world for women is infinitely improved from those foolhardy days…they are protected by many laws and civil rights that Second Wave feminists fought and bled to enact,” Scanlan acknowledged.

According to IWPR research, in 1960 the gender wage ratio was 60.7 percent. There were dramatic improvements in the 1980s, but progress in closing the gap has stalled in the last decade. The ratio of female to male annual earnings is now 77 percent—just slightly better than the ratio that Scanlan herself experienced in the 1960s. Going at today’s rate, it will take until 2057  to reach equal pay.

Esmeralda Lyn, Chair of IWPR’s board of directors, recently retired as the C.V. Staff Distinguished Professor of Finance and International Financial Services, and previously served as a finance officer at the United Nations in New York City. Commenting on her decades of professional experience, Lyn said, “There is no exception: finance is still an old boys’ club.”

IWPR research found that the finance industry has one of the largest wage gaps and that women are underrepresented among the highest earners in the banking and finance industry. According to IWPR analysis, in the banking and finance industries only 26 percent of employees with high earnings (at least $100,000 per year) are women.

Despite what Lyn describes as the “egregious gender discrimination [that] happens in the corporate world and in large international organizations,” she believes the situation is slowly improving.

Caroline Hopper is a former intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and is a student at The George Washington University. Look for more perspectives on women in the workforce coming this month.

 

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