The Evolution of Women in the Workplace | Of Mercer

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Career and Life

The Evolution of Women in the Workplace

The workplace relies on women. Learn more about the events that have paved the way for women to excel, and the possible solutions to current disparities that exist today. 

In 2019, women made up 47% of the workforce. From 2017-2018 women earned 57.3% of bachelor’s degrees and 60.1% of master’s degrees. With numbers such as these, one can reasonably infer that the climate of the workplace would be equal for both men and women. As we know, however, this is not the case. While delving into the possible causes of why work culture is so skewed away from the benefit of women is a study in and of itself, we thought it was worth looking into. Understanding the history of women in the workplace- events that propelled women and events that inhibited women- can paint a clearer picture as to the imbalance of power in the workplace. Ultimately, we can use this information to analyze the current landscape and future implications.  


In 1825, the United Tailoresses of New York formed the first all-women union. Made during the Labor Movement in the early 1800s, the significance of this union is that there is power in numbers; backed by the stick of a union, women in these tailor positions could ensure better wages, safety standards, and better hours. Having an all-women union legitimized the role of women in the workplace and their right to demand a better work life.


The social security act of 1935 created the social security program we know today, and provided unemployment assistance. However, this act came with hidden consequences in a few different ways. To the benefit of stay-at-home moms, which comprised of most women in the 1930s, the act also gave a pension to these women taking care of the household as long as they were not employed. However, this act excluded employed domestic workers- which was most African American women. This meant that even though they were employed, they could not receive social security, and could not qualify for pensions for taking care of their own households. This is compounded by the fact that African American women had no choice but to work to support their husbands because of the preclusion of higher paying jobs to both. Agricultural workers were also left out of this social security act. In total, the combination of leaving these two groups out meant that 60% of the nation’s Black people were not eligible for social security or pensions. Many historians argue that Roosevelt included these provisions in the plan so as to assuage powerful Southern barons in congress and ensure Southern support in the New Deal coalition.


We all know the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster, galvanizing women to join the workforce while the draft called many men to the military. During WWII, there was mass marketing and word of mouth that transitioned women from the home to the workplace. Women worked roles such as building ships, producing munitions, driving fire engines, and more- jobs that were traditionally associated with men because of their physical labor. During the years 1940-1945 the women labor force expanded by 50%, according to the Metropolitan State University of Denver. While the role of women in the workplace shifted back after the war ended and men reoccupied their jobs, the echoes of this new found workforce translated into women showing they were capable of excelling in the workplace.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 enlisted protected classes that cannot be discriminated against; this includes race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. On these terms, women could theoretically make a case that they were being discriminated against because of their sex, as it pertains to job promotions, job applications, or any other workplace practices. While this law seems to protect women in theory, in practice it was hard to invoke this act and prove discrimination- especially in a climate where women in the workplace was relatively new. However, just a year before, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, signaling to the country that the attitude towards women was finally being given its due diligence.


As more women were entering the workplace, the role of caretaker slowly shifted to working mom. However, many younger women were entering the work force as well, establishing their own roles and advancing their careers. Part of what made this process achievable was the landmark Supreme Court Case, Eisenstadt v. Baird. In this decision, the Supreme Court flexed their legislative muscle and established the right of single women to have access to contraception. With this new addition of freedom, women were able to plan their futures and decide when in their career it was appropriate for them to get pregnant if they chose to. This decision accounted for about a third of the increase in women as skilled workers from 1970 to 1990. The ability to focus on their careers and build on their own skills made them formidable additions to the workplace. In this same year, the United States saw its first female CEO of a fortune 500 company, Katharine Grahams, of The Washington Post.


With the influx of skills able to be attained, women also turned to higher education as a means of augmenting their abilities in the office. By 1982, women reached a pinnacle point of earning more Bachelor’s degrees than men. This new skill level came with the added bonus of making women more qualified for higher paying jobs. Additionally, it meant that a larger number of women were entering the workforce after college- this changing demographic of increased female presence in the office forced office cultures to slowly start changing.


At this point, with more degrees and an ever increasing presence in the workplace, women were officially earning half of their household income. According to a 1995 survey, almost half of the married women said to have been earning 50% or greater of their total family income. This came as a victory for women’s roles in their homes, as they were no longer completely reliant on the salary of their husbands. This financial freedom was just one part of the mounting tide in the gender equality fight. Unfortunately, these indicators towards heightened social change were but a mere distraction to the reality of wage gaps, lack of women in positions of power, and discrimination in the workplace.


Even twelve years later, women still feel that they face discrimination in their offices. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2017, about four in ten working women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work. Further, women are about four times as likely to say that they have been treated as though they were incompetent because of their gender. Clearly, no matter how many advancements had taken place over decades prior, workplace dynamics reflected cultural attitudes- which still showed disparate conditions for women. Indeed, while the overall climate showed that women still faced discrimination in the workplace, this was an even worse demonstration for Black women. In 2017, full-time Black women received a median of $36,000, which was 21% lower than their White counterparts. Among this disparity is the history of systemic racism in American institutions and laws, which result in direct discrimination towards Black women, and inhibitory laws which precluded these women from accessing the same academic and career opportunities.


Just last December, CNBC reported that of the total layoffs in that month, women accounted for 100% of net jobs lost. Specifically, in net, women lost 140,000 jobs while men gained 16,000 jobs. With numbers like these, many women are finding it harder to stay in the workplace because they are still widely associated with taking care of household chores. In fact, according to the CNBC article, close to two million women have said to have been considering leaving the workplace because of the increasingly hard work life balance during Covid-19. There are many other symptoms to this endemic of women leaving the work place today though- and solutions for them.

As discussed, women are still considered to be the ones that must take care of children, maintain the household, and tend to chores. This gender disparity results in women having to work and focus on their career while also being expected to do more work after their 9-5. One proposed solution to this has been the call for childcare support for women who are juggling their lives with work.

Another clear problem is the wage gap between men and women. In 2020, women earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men. While we have been hearing this number for years, it still has barely changed to be equitable. Many argue that this is because women do not work as many hours as men, ignoring the crucial fact discussed above, that women are still considered keepers of the household and that their days do not end at the workplace. Clearly delineated salaries for each role could mitigate the stark difference in the wage gap today, so that wages aren’t decided after the candidate is chosen and there is no room for explicit or implicit bias.

We know that men outnumber women in leadership positions- because of this, less of the available mentors for younger associates are women. Normally, this shouldn’t make a difference in terms of who receives mentorships. However, men are actually hesitant to mentor women- especially women of color. Just 23% of senior level men sponsor one or more women of color. This is compared to 38% of women at the senior level. Without the proper guidance through their careers, it is harder to attain the same level of savviness in the field as people who are explicitly taught the inner workings of the career.

The history of women in the workplace paints a picture that can explain why we have arrived where we are and the things that are still holding us back. There is still work to be done, but we are on the right track to achieving workplace equality. While some solutions are childcare services, increased mentorship, open communication and feedback, and tightening the wage gap, the culture of the workplace requires a shift in the overall view that American society has on women. This should not be hard though- women are a vital part of the economy, exhibited in the positive correlation there is between women’s involvement in the labor force and increasing GDP of a country. On a micro level, company profit and share performance tend to be 50% higher when women are well represented in leadership roles. So, the next time things seem bleak, remember how far we have come, how many inspirational women have led us here, and how much the world needs us in the workplace.