Women in the Workplace: New Poll, Some Old Numbers

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A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey reveals some disconcerting, if not terribly surprising, facts about how women feel and are treated in the workplace—things that many people already know, and many have worked to change. Yet, still, "women in large numbers believe they face disadvantages in the workplace, including lower pay than men and other forms of discrimination—opinions that haven't budged during a period when public opinion has shifted markedly on many other social issues," Colleen McCain Nelson writes. 

It's strange, isn't it? Or isn't it. The gender wage gap, gender discrimination, and that omnipresent question of having it all: These were three big topics this survey of 1,000 adults, conducted April 5-8 by the polling organizations of Bill McInturff at Public Opinion Strategies and Fred Yang at Hart Research, addressed. A survey can only be a survey, but these are topics we've been talking about for years. There's been a spate of recent conversation brought on by Sheryl Sandberg's book and "Lean in" philosophy, but these conversations existed well before that, and well before Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article about having it all, too. The basic kernel of the discussion is equality, though the trappings surrounding it evolve according to the time. The simple fact that we keep having these conversations means we're not there yet; take a look at the numbers of female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, or the numbers of women in Congress, or the list of female writers published by national magazines.

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Then there's this new survey, which found the following, both stats in line with the results of a survey from 1997: "84 percent of women say men are paid more for similar work" (this is supported by government data, though only two-thirds of men agree it's true), and "more than four in 10 women say they have faced gender discrimination personally, most often in the workplace." 

The main shift in survey results appears to come with the "having it all" conversation. It wasn't even a phrase on the lips of the majority of women of my grandmother's and even my mother's generations, who grew up thinking they'd get married and have children, with any career an afterthought, if even a thought. That changed, obviously, with the '70s and '80s and '90s, and now "a growing number of women say they can strike a balance between work and home life." Balance of course is one thing (and the survey doesn't talk about how many families need two incomes in order to live the lives they'd hoped for; balance can be a necessity, not a luxury); "having it all" is another (what is all, anyway, and does anyone, male or female, really get it?). But the takeaway from the survey with that is that fewer people (66 percent today versus 78 percent in 1997) think women "can't 'have it all' without making a lot of sacrifices at work and at home." Later in the Journal's article we learn that this view is more likely to come from younger women, "with 38 percent of those aged 18-34 saying they disagree with that statement, compared with 31 percent aged 35-54 and 32 percent of those older than 55." Those are the respondents who think women can have it all without having to compromise much with either their work or home-life.

I have a problem with the phrase "having it all" because I think it's debunkable in any situation. No one gets to have it all; by nature of being human you have to give up some things to get others, by nature of being human you have to compromise and choose. But I wonder about the shift in thinking about whether women can have it all without a ton of sacrifice. Does this mark a positive change, with new generations of women believing there aren't the same strictures upon and expectations of them that older generations struggled with? Or, is this simply youthful naivety—particularly when the numbers about the gender gap and discrimination in the workplace are brought up again?

Oh yes, those. The percentage of women saying they'd experienced discrimination "because they're women" had gone up since a survey in 2000, to 46 percent (is this in part because more women are aware of or O.K. talking about discrimination in the workplace? Maybe). As for the wage gap, it narrowed in the '80s and '90s but has held steady since 2000, according to The Institute for Women's Policy Research. Steady and not equal: "Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that women who work full-time earn 79 percent of the weekly pay that men bring home," writes McCain Nelson.

There were other questions addressed in the survey, including about gay marriage and abortion, and the Journal's piece (behind a paywall) is worth a read. As for workplace equality, there are clearly many reasons we need to keep talking about it, and keep making changes, until we get it right. Leaning in alone is not going to do it. But awareness of and discussion of the facts, and not giving up, seem key to getting there.

Image via Shutterstock by Everett Collection.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.