Men and Women in the Workforce: What Has Changed?

Recently retired and looking back over my decades in the workforce, I see gender issues once again gaining strength. I was raised to believe there were no gender barriers or limitations, and most of what I have seen in my youth and working years has supported that. Yet significant events stand in stark contrast, leaving an indelible mark in my mind and a subtle reminder of a different era.

I recall as an adolescent wanting to play baseball or do woodworking in school in New York City, but being required to take cooking and sewing classes. I remember a wonderful teacher in junior high school who struggled to fit into regular work clothes; it seemed obvious that she was pregnant. When I asked my homeroom teacher why she was wearing such tight clothing, she told me the teacher needed to keep working and could not if maternity clothes became needed. In these earlier years, many laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barring employment discrimination had not yet been enacted or had been enacted but were not highly enforced.

By the time I started working full-time in the late 1960s, women were just entering the workforce in greater numbers. The women’s liberation movement was picking up steam, yet problems still existed. During those years, I recall a young coworker who was terminated from her clerical position at an insurance agency when she reached 6 months in her pregnancy. Needing the income, she begged the manager to let her keep working, but the manager terminated her anyway.

Years later, as a new employee of an insurance agency, I broached the idea of equal pay for equal work with the owner. I was told that my male counterpart with the same job had a family to support so he had to make more money than I was being paid, even though at that time I was the main supporter for my husband and myself. As my work experience increased, I could see the working world for women was not what I had expected growing up. In fact, I learned that gender, not competence, seemed to be what mattered most.

I have been a member of the workforce for nearly 5 decades, and based on my current observations gleaned from engaging with multiple medical groups and organizations throughout the United States, it seems, unfortunately, that this reality persists even today. Working men in these organizations who experienced the women’s revolution of the 1960s and 1970s have seen injustices such as pay inequities and discrimination against pregnant workers rectified by law. Today they seem to have either a healthy respect for gender equality or a healthy appreciation of what women can bring to the workplace at all levels.

I have observed, however, that men who did not experience this revolution firsthand are in a different place. This population seems to lack the hands-on life experiences with the move toward gender equity and nondiscrimination. As a result, their attention to their own perspectives on gender equity may be less developed, and this leaves us vulnerable to repeating history.

Women bring a wealth of knowledge, skill, and talent to the workforce today. Their complementary style of interacting with information and colleagues adds a richness to organizations across the globe. I have observed, though, that some men are less comfortable with these differences, and I have seen women marginalized or discounted in a company when they bring a relational or passionate element to a discussion.

In addition, women tend to be delegated to an outsider role. Often they are left out of discussions about topics such as sports, cars, or fishing that their male counterparts so easily fall into. They also tend to be excluded from gatherings after work at the local watering hole, or from the days spent on the golf course. This subtle but continued exclusion of women in the social aspect of the workplace gives them a serious disadvantage when it comes time to weighing in on decisions or applying for a promotion.

My professional acquaintances and friends privately confirm this reality but will not share it in writing. I recently went happily into retirement after nearly 50 years of full-time work. As I parted, I felt some sadness that things are the way they are today in the workforce, but I also left with hope that the future will be better than the past…or the present.

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