Job Discrimination and What Women Can Do About It

"I had the experience last year of seeing a job I had filled for two years upgraded when it was filled by a man, at double the salary I was paid for the same work. College trained women are lumped with the secretarial and clerical staff, while college trained men are seen as potential executives. A few years of this and everybody is behaving according to what is expected of them, not what they are capable of."

What this woman does not realize is that she is caught in the "damned if you do and damned if you don't" vise typical of the situation of many women in professional fields. If they are vital and assertive, they are rejected as "aggressive bitches out to castrate men." If they are quiet and unassuming, they are rejected as "unlikely to amount to much." Women who try to ease their acceptance by male colleagues in a masculine profession with sweetness-and-light talk may be kept on in the particular low-status niche they occupy, but then find that they are rejected for promotion because they lack drive and ambition.

The women quoted thus far share a common characteristic: they experienced discrimination and did nothing about it. The devices used to keep them down are various forms of ridicule, social rejection, bypassing them to promote less competent men, or subtle forms of lowering their expectations. If supervisors express surprise when women do a job well and give a shrug of "what can you expect" when they do a mediocre job, and this is repeated often enough, many women eventually internalize these expectations and perform accordingly. Fortunately, not all women have this reaction to discriminatory attempts to block their movement into "masculine" or administrative jobs. Some women do the bypassing themselves, by leaving the employers who prevent their advancement and setting themselves up as independent entrepreneurs.One woman with a degree in meteorological engineering gives this account of her career:

I'm self-employed now. I am the boss, and no one can fire me. But it was a tough fight. When I graduated from MIT I was told I'd never anywhere in my field. But my advice to young women now is "don't listen to anybody's advice." When I found I was blocked from advancement in one firm, I simply took a job with another. Finally I reached a vice-presidency but found I couldn't become president there. I decided to leave and build my own firm. Now I have just that, and a client list of 100 firms we service as engineering consultants.

Another woman started out with a doctorate in education and tried to make her way in business firms. She writes:

As one of the few female presidents of public companies in the United States, I have had share of battling with the male ego in the business world. After six years of being denied various professional positions because of my sex, 1 finally decided that the only way for a woman to succeed in business was to start her own company. My firm was incorporated last year, with big ideas and money. Today it is a public company worth about five million dollars.

Nor has this woman executive forgotten the early difficulties she had as a woman in a man's world for she goes on to explain:

Half of my management staff is composed of brilliant women who are successfully combining their roles as wives, mothers, and professionals.

Not all women have either the qualities, the contacts, or the occupational interest appropriate to such shifts from a salaried employee to a self-employed business executive as these two women. They do, however, have numerical strength, and a growing number of women's rights organizations to assist them in tackling all levels of discrimination in employment. One of the most important legal assists in this regard is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which includes a sex- discrimination ban. The ban against sex discrimination was submitted as an amendment by Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith of Virginia and adopted with strong Southern support, despite opposition by the U. S. Department of Labor and the objection by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emmanuel Celler that it was "illogical, ill-timed, ill-placed, and improper." It is widely believed that Southern support for the amendment was an attempt to hamstring the agency which would administer the title by taking resources and energy away from its handling of race-discrimination cases. It did not seem to be recognized by anyone at the time that at least half of the potential cases of racial discrimination could not be effectively handled without a sex-discrimination ban, since they would involve Negro women, many of whom report, as did congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and lawyer Pauli Murray recently, that they have experienced far more discrimination on the grounds of sex than of race.

In its annual report in 1967, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stated that well over a third of the complaints it received and analyzed in the first year of operations alleged discrimination based on sex, and many of its most difficult cases involved sex discrimination. Of the 2432 cases of sex discrimination filed and analyzed by the EEOC in fiscal year 1966, the major problems, by order of frequency, were as follows: benefits; layoff, recall, and seniority; state labor laws for women, particularly restrictions on overtime work by women; job classification; hiring, of which complaints by women exceeded complaints by men by a ratio of 4 to 1; promotion; and wage differentials.

Watching the early operation of the EEOC, the National Organization for Women (NOW) charged that the commission was hampered by vacancies on its staff, by the absence of women in top positions on the commission staff, and by a reluctance among some of its male members to combat sex discrimination as vigorously as they sought to combat racial discrimination. Generally speaking, the commission has been slow to act on sex-discrimination issues. In his review of the role of the federal government in promoting equal opportunity in employment and training, Richard Nathan (Jobs and Civil Rights, 1969) concluded that when the commission did act, it tended to take positions which were short on specifics, leaving for subsequent cases the precise interpretation of Title VII. On state protective laws, the commission first prohibited firms from refusing women jobs merely because state laws required special conditions for employment different from those for men, without spelling out any specific guidelines. Ten months later (1966) the commission reversed itself, ruling that all state protective law cases should be taken to the courts. In 1967 the commission again switched its position, claiming that it can hold that Title VII superseded state protective laws.

Court cases contesting the legality of state protective laws have been on the increase. In one important case, three women employees were fired by their Colgate-Palmolive employers on the ground that the law prevented women from lifting weights in excess of 35 pounds and the firm was replacing the women with men. The women first lost their case (Sellers et al v. Colgate-Palmolive) in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, but went on to win an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (Chicago) in 1969. The court 'reviewing the appeal ruled that the lower court's decision was "based on a misconception of the requirements of Title VII's anti-discrimination provisions."

The Court further ordered that Colgate had to notify all its workers that each of them who desired to do so would be given an opportunity to demonstrate ability to perform more strenuous jobs. When it is realized that on jobs previously reserved for' men at the Indiana Colgate plant men were paid at wage rates which began at the highest rate payable to women, it is apparent that the effect of the court ruling is to give women equal opportunity to bid for better paying jobs on the basis of their individual capabilities/and desires, and to prohibit their exclusion from these jobs because of sex. It was a victory for the Colgate women workers in the case, for all women in industrial jobs, and for the volunteer women attorneys who represented the women workers (Human Rights for Women, Inc., Washington, D.C.).

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