Women In Business 399
Photo by: Yuri Arcurs

From the beginning of time, women have worked at home, as well as outside of the home, to contribute to the greater economic well-being of family. Even in colonial America, characterized by rural and self sufficient communities, women assumed roles in the manufacture and sale of goods. Beginning with the textile mills and the shoemaking industry of postrevolutionary America, the first real explosion of women into business appeared at the turn of the century in secretarial and take-home work situations. By World War I, women were poised to enter the workforce in great numbers and spurred into the workplace by the absence of men on the homefront. As men returned from the war and the economy gradually worsened into the Great Depression, women suffered displacement from the business world. World War II created a similar growth of women in business. Without a serious economic depression and as a result of changing societal norms, women's roles and functions in business have steadily increased in the years since World War II. In 1991 women represented 45 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Blue-collar workers traditionally evoke images of trades and manufacturing employees. White-collar employees hold positions of professional and managerial importance. Women in business, while represented in both, create a third category called pink-collar workers. Pink-collar workers are commonly associated with clerical, sales, and service positions. In each of these roles, women participate and create a presence. In trade and manufacturing jobs particularly, the relationship between women and labor unions has been noteworthy. In professional and managerial jobs, women are directly exposed to ideas and conceptions of power and control. And, in service jobs, women, as the dominant labor force, deal with effects of technology daily in a compelling way.

The sum total of this historical record and increasing participation in the workforce brings to light the controversial matter of a woman's work and worth. In particular, gender discrimination and pay inequity demonstrate the difficult transition of women into the business world. Protective legislation is one demonstration of governmental attempts to prevent and discourage sex discrimination on the job. Legal redress for salary inequities is another method of controlling pay discrimination. Other contributing concerns that women bring to business include issues about benefits. Child care/elder care needs accompany women into the business world as do preferences for flexible scheduling and family leave. These issues reflect the dual role that women hold in both the business world and the family/personal world. Married women, mothers, and older women benefit from workplace accommodations to individual needs and conflicting priorities when benefits are tailored accordingly.


In 17thand 18th-century America, women worked at home with their husbands to contribute to the family's economic support. Employment opportunities for women were scarce. In this essentially self supporting rural lifestyle, centers of commerce emerged as small towns and cities. Working out of necessity, women became shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants. The most frequent reason for working was widowhood. Examples of working women in colonial America are often associated with the clothing trade. Women printers, however, illustrate a particularly significant departure from textile-based employment. Women entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Timothy (c. 1700-1757) and Cornelia Smith Bradford (d. 1755) operated as independent printers and bookbinders in South Carolina and Boston, respectively, in 18th-century America. The employment of women in the printing trades was well-regarded and common at the time. Frequently, a woman would inherit her husband's printing business at the time of his death. As proprietors and purveyors of the printed word, women printers enjoyed a small but significant minority role in colonial America. The impending war with England created a demand for goods made in America, thus opening business opportunities to women engaged in the production of cloth and food. Even as women worked, however, they still worked out of necessity. The prevailing societal attitude projected the ideal woman as family oriented, not business oriented.

As a logical conclusion, postrevolutionary America found women engaged in the business of working at home. Piecework or take-home work formed roots during this time that continue to modern day. In conjunction with increased industrialization, textile mills in the northeastern states sought women out as a source of cheap labor and the organized movement of women into the workforce first appeared. Combined with the endeavors of early women's rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), the idea of women in the workplace began to gain approval. Yet, the outspoken cultural preference was still towards the ideal woman and "spheres of influence." Spheres of influence refers to a prevailing theory that women belonged in the private sphere of family while men belonged in the public sphere of business. As cities grew and transportation improved, work and business were increasingly conducted from a centralized location. As a result, homework or piecework decreased. The influx of immigration from 1840 on increased the labor force. Society began to embrace the idea of the ideal woman and diminished the expectation for a woman's contribution to family financial health. Instead, men assumed the burden of sole provider while women stayed at home more and more frequently. With the advent of the Civil War, this model changed.

Clerical and teaching opportunities opened to women during the Civil War. Nursing began to assume a professional component due to the casualties of the war. As a result of the great many deaths in the Civil War, thousands of women were left to fend for themselves financially and economically. A conflict arose between the economic need for survival and the cultural expectations of family responsibility. Even among wealthy women, the move from private to public sphere accelerated in voluntary and charitable outlets.

By the turn of the 19th century, women altered the cultural landscape by creating the idea of a new woman to replace the ideal women. Changing ideas of women included the central role of woman as partner to the economic well-being of the family and society as a whole. By 1900, more than 20 percent of women worked for a wage. The range and variety of employment in the 1900 census indicates that women held jobs in law, journalism, dentistry, medicine, engineering, mining, and other typical occupations. Women were counted in 295 of the 305 occupations listed on the census. The increasing industrialization of the United States resulted in a surge in factory work. More than one million women worked in factories in 1900. Most of these women were young, single, and foreign-born. They worked for low wages and knew no job security. Factories were unsafe and dirty. As a result, the businesswoman's first association with labor unionism appeared. In the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909, women banded together and struck to protest working conditions and wages in the clothing industry. Many other labor unions appeared that either solely represented or incorporated the female employee during the early 1900s.

Even as women worked in industry to fuel its growth, the outcome created new business opportunities for women in clerical jobs. Between 1900 and 1920, the number of women clerical workers grew from 187,000 to 1,421,000. Women entered professional and managerial jobs during this time as well. Health, education, and caring professions emerged to alleviate suffering caused by industrialization while simultaneously expanding professional opportunities for women. During World War I, women assumed many of the roles and jobs of men during their absence. After the war, however, women were expected to return to familial pursuits. Still considered a secondary labor force, women were encouraged to engage in volunteer and charity work. Many who chose to remain in the workforce took lower-paying jobs as men returned from military service.

During World War II, women again entered the workforce in great numbers. In response to a need for new workers and new production, six million women went to work during the war. Society's approval of this phenomena was reflected in posters of Rosie the Riveter and other cultural signals. Magazines and movies and other media all reinforced a woman's patriotic duty to work. Again, however, at the end of the war, women were encouraged to leave the workplace and return to the family environment. While half the women in the workplace left between 1945 and 1946, by 1947 the employment rate of women had regained its wartime levels. And, by 1950, almost one third of all women worked outside the home.

From the end of World War II to present, women continued to gain a significant presence in the work world. In the 1960s, the women's movement articulated a number of issues that concerned women employees, including low pay, low status, and sexual discrimination. Gaining steam, women networked and organized and successfully lobbied for governmental protections such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Through a series of redress such as court decisions, laws, and affirmative action, women found new rights and opportunities in the workplace. During this time, married women and mothers continued to participate in employment outside the home in increasing numbers. Spurred by consumerism and the need to make more money to buy more things, married women composed almost two-thirds of the female labor force in the mid1970s. And, as more women emerged as single parents, mothers also entered the workforce in increasing numbers as a matter of economic survival.


Women work in the trades and labor jobs, in professional and managerial jobs, and in the service industry. Although women's work is as varied as the women themselves, these traditional categories of workplace employment serve as a useful framework to evaluate women in business. In trade and labor employment, women find themselves at particular odds with male-dominated occupational patterns. For example, blue-collar jobs are often associated with male-dominated unions. In professional and managerial jobs, women continue to enter business only to encounter a phenomena called the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling documents the rise of women only to a certain point within a business (i.e., middle management) and points to sex discrimination as the cause of this limited advancement. As a result of more equal access to higher education and professional programs, women continue to advance themselves within the professional and managerial fields. In the service sector, women dominate business at the lowest levels. Almost 45 percent of all working women are employed within the low-paying and low-status jobs of the service sector.


Although women have been members of labor unions since the early 1800s, their significant participation has been hampered by economic, cultural, and social reasons. Until wartime, women and their employers typically viewed the female workforce as temporary employees. These perceptions made women appear to be easily replaced, and diluted the effectiveness of any combined or unionized activities. Additionally, many of the unions' strongest tactics, including the strike, were perceived by society and women workers as unfeminine and undesirable. In 1900 only about 2 percent of the female workforce were unionized. Nevertheless, the harsh conditions of early industrial America prevailed upon women to organize and unionize for better working conditions. One of the earliest, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) represented women in the textile and garment industries. The 1909 Uprising of the 20,000 saw women flexing their union muscles and striking. Throughout the next several decades, women participated more frequently in unions, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Of the two, the CIO is historically seen as more sympathetic to women. Fearful that low wages for women would decrease wages for men as well, both the AFL and CIO invited women to join and advocated equal pay. Mary Kenney was the first AFL woman organizer in 1891. The major unions, however, often exhibited ambivalent attitudes and actions toward women, including refusal to take actions against affiliates that excluded women from membership.


As women gained more access to education and professional programs, their presence began to be felt in professional and managerial fields. Historically, graduate programs in business denied entry to women. In 1963, Harvard began to admit women into the Graduate School of Business Administration. By 1989, women received almost half the undergraduate degrees awarded in business nationally and almost a third of all MBAs. Historically, women gained admittance to managerial and professional positions in traditionally female fields such as librarianship and human resource management. Other more male-dominated professions, however, such as law and medicine, more frequently reflect women's entrance and success. As early as 1869, Arabella Mansfield (1846-1911) took and passed the Iowa bar exam. In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor (1930-) became the first female Supreme Court judge. In the interim century, women advanced in law and by 1996, women accounted for roughly half of all law students and almost one-third of practicing lawyers. Similarly, in medicine, women such as Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910; M.D., 1849) proved that women were competent and capable of performing within the professional fields. The American Medical Association began accepting women as members as early as 1876. Yet, until the 1970s, women were poorly represented in all medical fields except nursing. In 1996 women comprised 20 percent of all physicians and more than 40 percent of medical students. Within 15 years, women were expected to account for one-third of practicing physicians in the United States. Today, women are present in accounting, architecture, engineering, medicine, journalism, psychology, and other professional endeavors. Yet, they remain stymied by the glass ceiling.

The glass ceiling is a theory that attempts to explain why women do not advance into the uppermost professional and managerial jobs in business. For example, in medicine, only about 10 percent of women faculty members are full professors while almost a third of their male colleagues are full professors. Similar statistics in nearly every managerial or professional category point to the same inequity. In an apparent self-fulfilling pattern, productivity seems connected to the number of senior female positions within the company. Companies such as Motorola, Inc. programatically approach this problem by setting goals and structuring promotion and advancement opportunities that meet their goals. Like Deloitte and Touche, these and other companies recognize women's worth to the profession and competitive advance therein.

One result of the glass ceiling has been the rise of women entrepreneurs. By establishing their own businesses, women entrepreneurs hope to avoid discriminatory factors and measures that impair their success in the traditionally male business world. Women form businesses at nearly twice the rate of men. And, in the United States, about 6.5 million businesses are owned or controlled by a woman. Some, such as Elizabeth Arden (1878-1966), Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965), and Estee Lauder, made their fortunes in cosmetics while others, such as Olive Ann Mellor-Beech (1903-1993), inherited their businesses when their husbands died. By 1996, 3.5 million home-based businesses were owned by women, and those businesses provided work for approximately 14 million people. Discrimination is not absent, however, in the entrepreneurial world. In April 1994 Congress set a goal for the U.S. government to put 5 percent of its procurement dollars into women-owned businesses. Still, during the late 1990s, less than 2 percent of government procurement spending went to women's firms.


The service industry, so thoroughly dominated by the female labor force, represents another category of employment frequently called the pink-collar jobs. These pink-collar jobs are characterized by low pay and low status. Clerical positions are perhaps the most widely recognized of these positions in the business world. With the advent of the typewriter in the late 1800s, women came forward to apply for and receive employment as typists. While previous male clerical workers had seen these entry level jobs as an effective means to move up within the organization, female workers soon discovered that management relied on breaking down clerical tasks so that workers would be interchangeable. In 1990, 80 percent of all clerical workers were women and more than 25 percent of all working women found themselves in clerical jobs. Retail sales workers account for another large segment of the service sector employment. Since the early 1900s, retail sales clerks have been transformed to cashiers with the restructuring of retail from full-service to self-service format.


Early cultural consensus held that women and men enjoyed two different spheres of influence. Men moved within the public sphere of influence, including business and commerce, while women were confined to the private or family sphere of influence. More than any other factor, the issue of sex discrimination influences current promotion and pay practices within the workplace. Sex discrimination emerges from a strong past belief that women belonged in the home environment and not in the business environment. Two central tenants of sex discrimination hold that women do not need the money of employment since they will be supported by a man and that women are not as qualified as men. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided protective legislation for women and enabled them to legally contest discriminatory practices in pay and promotion. As a result of these and other laws, bona fide occupational qualifications exist to define and determine the extent to which sex relates to ability to successfully complete a job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the watchdog governmental agency set up to deter sex discrimination in the workplace. Nevertheless, both historically and in modern settings, women earn less than men for the same work. Comparable worth, or the principle that equal work deserves equal pay, continues to evoke considerable controversy since many fear that male wages will decline rather than women's wages increase.

Three factors account for the origins of the low pay of women. First, women workers were always seen as merely supplementing their husband's pay. Even unmarried women were perceived to be transitional and on their way to domestic life. Under these assumptions, women did not warrant the training or education to move to higher-paying jobs even if they had been available. Second, early professional positions in nursing, education, and librarianship were outgrowths of charitable and philanthropic work. Done for charity and "good works," the pay for these jobs reflected remuneration as an irrelevant part of employment. Finally, the historical involvement of women in domestic or housework type employment (e.g., sewing, cleaning) tied women's employment to traditional household duties. These household duties, since they were unpaid in a familial situation, received low pay in a commercial situation.


Married women, mothers, older women, and women of color are all present in the business world along with their single, white counterparts. In 1998 more than 30 million married women worked outside the home and women represented 49 percent of the professional, managerial, and administrative workforce. In the coming years, women of color will compose the fastest growing segment of the labor force. Because of their dual role in the home and at work, women bring to the job new and previously unconsidered issues in employment. Some of these issues include child care, elder care, scheduling, and financial considerations.

As more and more single female parents enter the business world, the need for child care increases. From a business perspective, this is imperative to ensure the continued supply of female workers. In the early 19th century, women were normally left to their own devices to arrange for child care. Neighbors and relatives filled this need and, when unavailable, children were simply left home alone. At the turn of the century, women such as Josephine Dodge spearheaded philanthropic efforts to establish child care centers for working mothers. Dormant until the 1970s, the lack of available child care reflected society's preference for women to stay at home rather than work. Only during wartime did the government intervene with subsidized child-care arrangements to further the employment of women. With the advent of the 1960s, societal attention turned seriously to child-care efforts. And, in the 1970s, the White House Conference on Children addressed child-care issues by recommending federal funding. Rather than directly subsidizing child-care needs, federal tax reform in 1976 and 1978 offered tax relief for funds spent on child care. A relatively small number of businesses provide child-care arrangements as part of an employment package. Companies such as Boeing Corporation offer 24-hour hotline services, and others such as Apple Computer, Inc. offer on-site facilities. For small businesses, subsidization of child care can be prohibitively expensive. In 1990 child care accounted for the fourth-largest expense in most working families.

As life expectancy increases, working women are often faced with a situation called "the sandwich generation." Caring for children and aging parents, female workers also bring to the workplace the issue of elder care. Similar in many ways—economically and socially—to child care, elder care is expensive and often requires specialized medical attendants. Almost three-quarters of all caregivers of aging relatives are women. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 addresses both child and family needs by allowing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of a family member.

As a result of conflicting family roles and responsibilities, women embrace the idea of flexible scheduling. Flexible scheduling allows women to set their own hours within limits set by corporate policy or practice. While companies must bear the costs of complicated schedules, they reap the benefits of increased productivity as women arrange schedules to meet their familial responsibilities. Almost 60 percent of all women would prefer a job with flexible hours. Other arrangements, such as job sharing, allow women to share jobs with other women in order to accommodate home demands.

Pension plans that incorporate early vesting and portability accommodate women's more frequent entries and exits from the business world. Since women have not, however, typically received the same benefits, at retirement many women find themselves with considerably less financial security than their male counterparts. Pension plans that require women to pay more to participate than men are illegal since the 1978 Supreme Court ruling on Los Angeles v. Manhart.

SEE ALSO : Gender Discrimination ; Glass Ceiling ; Women Entrepreneurs

[ Tona Henderson ,

updated by Wendy H. Mason ]


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