Are Business Women Getting a Square Deal?


‘WE have not yet emerged,’ a business woman said to me not long since, ‘ from the stage where the attitude of the business man toward us is somewhat his attitude toward an upper servant — a mingled courtesy and condescension, with the condescension slightly more marked than the courtesy.’

Another business woman, to whom I repeated the remark, objected that it was too flattering to the business woman, implying a recognized need of her on the part of the business man. ‘His feeling,’ she said, ‘toward the business woman, when the woman reaches a plane where it is difficult for him to ignore her presence, is more the one he has for a poor relation who has arrived on a visit — a feeling of mixed annoyance and pity. He hopes that the visit will not be for longer than his gentlemanly instincts of hospitality can be reasonably expected to hold out. Business men in general,’ she went on, ‘are still filled with the idea that they will not have to endure forever this plague of business women that has been visited upon them. They simply will not face the fact,’ she ended emphatically, ‘that women have come into business to stay.’

Whatever business men may be thinking about the matter, business women, it is evident, have no intention of relinquishing such rights as they have established in the business world as squatters. It may or may not be true that the hardest phase of their pioneering experience lies behind them. But they have at least reached a point where, in an effort to understand and cope with the present, they are beginning to look back.

A comprehensive history of the rise of the business woman has not yet been written. But roughly speaking I should say that the first stage extended from the eighteen-eighties well into the present century. During this stage any well-born woman who got what we now bluntly call a ‘job’ was an object of widespread pity. ‘She had to go to work’ is an expression that dates, as we say. It carried an implication of tragedy.

Business opportunities for women of the period were restricted, with few exceptions, to keeping a boarding house, clerking in a dry-goods shop, dressmaking, millinery. These occupations were all more or less declassing. It was a good many years before a woman with a taste for cookery was to have a vision of profit and prestige that would make of her, instead of a boarding-house drudge, the owner of a chain of tearooms and restaurants. A woman dry-goods clerk was socially submerged until the dignified high-paid position of woman buyer came into being. An even greater length of time was to elapse before a countess would turn modiste, thereby giving social sanction to still another occupation adapted to women’s tastes and talents. As late as 1906, during a stay in Virginia I was witness to the struggles of a young woman trying to persuade her family that she would be happier trimming hats than accepting the only alternative that offered — marriage to a neighbor. A year or so later the girl established herself as a milliner, though at the cost of a break with her family, who claimed she had disgraced their name. The effect of early martyrs upon the social coefficient of business women is sometimes overlooked.

This is especially true of almost the only other business choice open, during the period under consideration, to women forced to support themselves and others. The woman stenographer, now looked upon as holding the key position for women in business, survived under a heavy initial handicap of social disapproval. The first women stenographers were serious-minded, but they were soon under suspicion as a class because of the new relationship to men, and the symbolic conception of a stenographer by the late nineteenth century vested her with blonde hair, dyed, and with designs upon her employer. Thirty years ago there was such stigma attached to stenography that it took more than ordinary courage for a girl who was at all sensitive to adopt it as a livelihood. But although the general feeling of compassion for any woman — not of the factory or servant class — who ‘had to go to work’ stopped short of the stenographer, she pitied herself. Consider for a moment this young woman who broke a path into business for the endless procession that has followed. She had never even heard of ‘economic independence’ as applied to women. The idea of business as a ‘glorious opportunity’ for herself, or for any other woman, was one she could not have reached by the uttermost stretch of her imagination. She thought — what almost everybody else thought at the time — that business could never be anything for a woman but a sad necessity.

No longer than ten years ago women felt humiliated if their circumstances drove them unexpectedly into business. Doubtless even yet there are women confronted with the prospect of ‘jobs’ for themselves who are not entirely free from this feeling. Traces of the sentiment linger, moreover, — according to the more vigorous and outspoken of his critics, — with a connotation of contempt, in the business man’s contemporary attitude toward the business woman. But in any prevailing sense pity for women in business has to-day all but spent itself.

It gave way by imperceptible degrees to a new situation. The ‘female help,’ as many old-fashioned employers still call women in business, at first aroused little interest on the part of the business man, and no concern. In an incredibly short space of time, however, the movement of women into business was greatly accelerated. A chivalrous impulse— an impulse to protect her, if I understand it correctly — was called forth by the business man’s sudden perception of woman close at hand, in his everyday business life. There was something a trifle piquant, rather appealing, in her advent. There was as yet, it must be remembered, no expectation that the female help would ever occupy any but unimportant positions. During this friendly interlude women in business began to find themselves; began to branch out, unobserved at the start, into innumerable new directions. Helen Woodward, in her illuminating work, Through Many Windows, crystallizes this moment in the business woman’s ascent — idyllic in retrospect — by a perfect example. In offices where she worked twenty years ago men would address her as ‘Sister.’

But business women, as well as business men, have outgrown such simplicity. Throughout the length and breadth of the business world of 1927 it would be, I imagine, impossible to discover a man who calls a woman working for or with him ‘Sister.’ ‘Sister’ struck the last note in an episode which it would be pleasant to dwell on. In it was no suggestion of a tone shortly afterward sounded in the phrase, ‘woman’s invasion.’ Whoever originated this strident term, it was plain that the old settlers had at last taken alarm.


For a while the alarm was hardly more than a vague uneasiness. If women kept coming into business, what would happen? Twenty years ago, or less, a man could issue a challenge to feminism, such as John Macy’s recent Equality of Woman with Man: A Myth, without being suspected of having his tongue in his cheek. There was still no feeling that woman could ever be the business rival of man. The most insignificant man in business could bolster himself up with the thought that he was, after all, a male. But he now received one jolt after another in rapid succession. He saw the business woman occupy position after position that it had been supposed no woman could fill. As a result, paradoxically, his condescension stiffened, rather than relaxed. The third stage in the business woman’s development seems distinctly marked by this new attitude toward her, with its hint, for the first time, of hostility. Driven to the last refuge, his historic position,— so business women explain the matter to themselves, — he felt that he could scarcely assume too lofty a mien.

But this accounts in part only for what appears to be the business man’s present view. One of the business women I have quoted advanced a plausible theory of its origin. She pointed out that the first woman with whom the business man had close contact in business, his personal stenographer (later known as a secretary), was, as a rule, his social as well as his educational inferior. She seldom had completed high school, if, indeed, she had more than finished the grammar grades. Often she had learned shorthand at night school while working by day at the bench. To such a girl ‘the boss’ was a great man. If he looked down upon her, obviously it was because she looked up to him with more than ordinary humility. The personal stenographer’s value was, in fact, for a long time rated according to her doglike fidelity. Modern business is still sprinkled with relics of this type. But, speaking generally, the business man’s secretary to-day is more often a college graduate than he is himself. The variety and number of her interests equal his own, and the character of their social backgrounds and connections is often almost identical. Conditions have completely changed. Despite this fact, there seems little doubt, in view of the evidence, that the business man’s early impression of the business woman has colored to some extent his whole later outlook.

The influence of this early impression marches on and on. The latest college graduate to enter a business organization from New Haven, Cambridge, or Chicago, though he may be amenable, even timid, in other directions, nevertheless, taking his cue from a mental attitude which he recognizes in business men who have arrived, begins to bully the business woman he finds handiest; yet she may be fifteen years ahead of him in business experience.

I used to be puzzled by the behavior of a very young executive when I called at his office on a necessary errand. Whenever I met this young man socially, his manners were impeccable. But in his office I could have stood till Doomsday before he gave the least sign that it would be acceptable to him to have me sit down. In the course of time I would carry a chair from a corner of the office — if the session promised to be lengthy — and place it conveniently near the one in which he was ensconced. I am perfectly able to carry a chair. All I wanted was an indication that I was not an intruder. One day I realized that the discrepancy between the young man’s social and business manners was due to the model he had studied, a former chief, who, though never actually uncivil, had never taken pains to conceal his opinion of women invaders who had achieved the rank of business executives.

When another woman who sometimes had dealings with this young man mentioned to an older business man a certain flagrant discourtesy of which the younger had been guilty, the elder defended him, ‘Well, you women want to be equals, so why should you expect any special consideration?’

‘ We don’t, ’ she replied. ‘ All we want is such consideration as one business man gives another.'

This retort, expresses, I believe, the view most business women take of the matter.

There was another early impression of business women that contributed its jot, very likely, to the attitude that we are subjecting to scrutiny. A few months ago, when traveling, I met a woman whom I had known as a girl, who has since become the leading — indeed probably the only — woman in the world in her own line. I did not immediately recognize her as an old acquaintance. Studying from across the aisle her serene, lovely face, I thought: ‘ What a charming mother she must be!” She has, as a matter of fact, never married, and presides, not over a family, but over a staff of lawyers, expert accountants, and engineers. In the course of our subsequent talk she told me that at the beginning of her career, when she had had to interview men of large interests, as she was sent back and forth across the continent to study the problem of this one and that, they never failed, after they became acquainted with her, to comment on the fact that she was ‘ a lady.’ One man said to her: ‘It was a big shock when you walked into this office. No one had prepared us. You see, we business men always expect a woman in some new and unusual line to be more or less of an adventuress.’

The experiences of a woman who started in 1904 to travel out of Chicago for a collecting agency with a national clientele confirm this statement. She was young and personable, but very serious. In the beginning almost every business man whom she tried to interest in the service she had to sell attempted to take some liberty. One man insisted he could only sign the final contract she presented if she would kiss him. ‘I wanted,’she said twenty years after, ‘not to kiss, but to slap him. But my two babies came up before me. I was their sole support , as well as my own. So I said laughingly, “Oh, my kisses are hardly worth so much as all that!” I had to have the contracts, though to get them without conceding anything was a struggle that often sent me back to my hotel room a wreck for the day.’

As a whole, business women are inclined to make allowance for frivolous treatment of their own business aspirations and for masculine condescension in general. It ruffles less than it amuses them. To quote another: ’The modern business woman . . . must expect to break down some barriers in the mind of the business man.’


Harder to overlook are obstacles of another sort that the business man throws in the way of each step in the business woman’s advance. There may never have been any conscious and concerted movement to ‘hold the door shut against her,’ as someone has expressed it; but it is pertinent to inquire how often business men have come forward and said, ‘Here a woman has never held such a place as this before, but why not?’ Usually she must fight to the utmost if she would achieve a new opportunity to demonstrate woman’s latent business capacity. I recall the vigorous opposition to a woman’s becoming paymaster, the first in a certain concern. I recall also — a promising sign — that when news of the struggle reached the president of the company he made it known in unmistakable fashion that thereafter, when a woman had proven her fitness for a position for which she was in line, there was to be no question, on the ground of sex, of her being promoted to it.

In this connection it may be mentioned that women tell me they meet with greater generosity from men who have attained the highest business places than from those of intermediate rank. The inference has been that the former, established in name and fortune, regard themselves, in a sense, as hors de concours, although the difference may be as reasonably attributed to a breadth of understanding more characteristic of the business leader than of the men he has outstripped.

The most unlovely charge the woman in business has to prefer against her business brother is his willingness — nay, often his eagerness — to take credit for her achievements. There is not a business woman who speaks her mind who does not have an experience to add to the overwhelming evidence on this point. A woman executive whom I know had most of the management against her in a certain business crisis, and prominent among them her own chief. Little by little she won them over. It turned out that her position had been well taken. Less than six months later her chief solemnly related to her how he had overcome the opposition in question! ‘He forgot for a moment,’ she laughed, in recounting the incident, ‘that he was talking to me!’

As the business woman laughs at the attempt to lord it over her of each raw recruit among college men coming into business, so she laughs at diehard manifestations on the part of his masculine elders. But is it strange if sometimes the laughter is tinged with bitterness? Her whole business future may depend upon recognition of business service which she herself has rendered. Yet here are matters, she feels, however mistakenly, too delicate to protest. Proudly hidden, this bitterness has been increasing since Armistice Day, a date that marks the business woman’s emergence into the fourth and present stage of her growing-up.

I well remember the executive who came out of conference late on the afternoon of November 11, 1918, his face wreathed with smiles, to announce, ‘The psychology of this place changes from this day!’ It was not necessary to explain to women who had been taken on to train for important places what this meant.

In spite of the fact that a ‘psychology’ newly acquired by the business man to meet the exigency of the war embraced its opportunity to ‘change’ overnight, women held on wherever they could, to work which they had found congenial, and they continue to progress. By all tokens they are, however, still unwelcome — at all events to more than an inconsequential share of the ponderable rewards that business offers.


‘ Equal pay for equal work’ is a slogan that recorded the business woman’s protest against what she considered gross unfairness. Like most slogans, it is not. quite so good as it seems. In factory work equitable adjustment can be made, and to some extent lias been made, through piecework, where the output alone regulates the wage. For office or store jobs of a simple routine character there seems insufficient ground for discrimination in pay on the score of sex. But take, for example, a young man and a young woman, college graduates, entering business. Neither is worth, relatively speaking, what both at the start commonly receive. Their pay has been fixed on the basis of the higher return they are expected to make in time, as the result of their superior advantages. If potentiality, then, properly enters into pay as a determinant, it is debatable whether the young woman, starling at the same rate as the young man, is not getting more in proportion than she should. Of the two she is the poorer risk. It may be argued that the young man’s greater liability to secure a job with another concern offsets marriage as a factor of impermanence. But will anyone acquainted with business dispute that marriage takes a heavier toll of the average business house through its promising young women than do rival concerns in picking off its promising young men?

Whether women committed to business careers care to face the fact or not, they must drag the dead weight of a multitude of other women who use business as a stop-gap. There are those who see a more cheerful prospect for business women in the decay of matrimony. But so long as young girls continue to file cards in wrong places because in their daydreams they are filling ‘hope chests,’ too much confidence cannot be placed in the overthrow of this venerable institution. Business women will do better, in all probability, to look forward to the dawn of an era in which, with the limitation of families and with scientific management of the home, women can combine domesticity and business without too great sacrifice of either. So long, however, as liability to marriage means loss to business, women’s pay will inevitably be more or less affected. And it is difficult to see how on such a basis anyone can make out a sound case of injustice to women.

But all this is not to blink another aspect of the matter. The truth is, there is seething dissatisfaction among the abler women from one end of the business world to the other. What distinguishes the exceptionally able woman from her sisters is her resentment. In addition to what she considers far from handsome treatment in other respects, there remains the fact that women who have served business organizations capably, and have given every reasonable assurance of continuing to do so, are receiving from a half to a third or even a smaller proportion of what is paid men in positions that call for the exercise of similar powers. The sole reason why this resentment does not come to the surface in the form of open rebellion is that business women do not feel themselves strong enough yet, as a class, to force the issue.

The complaints cannot be lightly dismissed on the ground that they represent the opinion of what is numerically an insignificant proportion of all business women. The calibre of the complainants must be taken into consideration. It is the very flower of business women who bring the indictment against the business man. These are the women — or the type of women — who will some day give him, in sporting language, a run for his money. And their ranks are yearly augmented by young college women — a rapidly growing body of sympathetic and ardent adherents.

Are business men going to let these smouldering fires break some day into high flame, or are they going to put them out by substituting the spirit of coöperation for that of competition?

So far as the business man is concerned, speaking personally, I should be pleased to see him pursue the latter course. When it comes to the business woman, why should she balk at more hurdles, when she has already taken so many that have not been lowered an inch for her own vault?


There are, in point of fact, several ways of escape open to the business woman. The most obvious is to go into business for herself. For her inspiration, city and country alike furnish examples of women’s personal and successful business ventures. It should be said at once, however, that only a small proportion of women can rely on this solution. The vast majority lack the necessary capital. And only a handful possess the combination of qualities that can weather conditions inseparable from business started on a shoestring. Every business organization in the land contains men who relinquished dreams of going into business for themselves when they recognized their own lack of the specific qualities which such an enterprise demands. There is no reason to suppose that women are endowed in these particulars more richly than men. Most women, as most men, who go into business must join, and remain in, established organizations. It is for this reason that I have confined myself almost entirely in the present discussion to what has been, and will be, the principal theatre of woman’s business activities. The lines she must follow there, if she continues to advance, are, it seems to me, clearly laid out.

Many able women contend that the greatest weakness in woman’s position to-day, when she reaches executive stature, is her association so largely with nonproductive lines. They believe that proper recognition of the business woman awaits her identification with positions that bring in business. There is force in the argument. But for women to make further productive contributions to business will not of itself, in my opinion, materially alter their present business status. It was a woman who devised a dress accessory to meet a modish need of the day, and a man with whom she was associated in business who reaped, according to all reports, the fortune that resulted. If women wish to receive anything like the benefits they are entitled to from their own productive business ideas they must insure themselves against theft both on the petty and on the grand scale.

Though it goes against the grain, business women must refuse to let their business accomplishments be chalked up to the credit of business men, even if the men in question are senior in rank. A perilous course — yes. But, granted it calls for a different order of courage, are our women pioneers in business going to let themselves be written down less brave than their pioneer great-grandmothers who wielded the axe, stood off Indians, broke sod in the West, killed rattlesnakes?

Women make an egregious mistake, however, when they assume that they alone in the business world must struggle for proper recognition. It would be a nice point to decide whether they are being submitted to a much more severe ordeal than men have long accustomed themselves to expect. Certainly men have been by no means strangers to the experience of having their business ideas appropriated by business associates. In reference to pay, why do business women, even experienced business women, overlook the fact that business notoriously pays men, as well as women, as little as it can? The same course is open to a business woman, when she feels that she is receiving unfair treatment, that is open to a business man. She should, of course, be well fortified, if she takes the stand that her services are worth more than the mark that has been placed upon them. I have known cases where women, men also, in the presence of their familiars, have indulged in threats that unless their compensation was increased they would seek other positions, when there was nothing their business seniors so much desired. The situation is inevitably fraught with risk. But it is a risk business men have again and again been forced to take. If standing up for their rights means, as it easily may, that women must sometimes go out and look for other jobs, they can console themselves with the reflection that innumerable men have elected to follow the same spirited but difficult course.

When employers tell the business woman that they realize her value, her obligations, but that she is a woman, sex has been used as a subterfuge to which the watchdogs of the treasury will continue to resort so long as women remain submissive. Despite the fact that women executives are everywhere receiving much smaller salaries than men of comparable business value, the charge commonly made by business women that this discrimination is based solely on sex does not rest, in my opinion, on any too firm a foundation. It involves a misapprehension of the nature of business. Indeed, here we approach, as I see it, the crux of the matter.

It is this misapprehension that is responsible for no small part of the business woman’s bitterness. It explains why the highest type of woman to be found in business is, broadly speaking, also the one who is most keenly dissatisfied with existing conditions. It is the sensitive and educated woman who expects the business world to approximate her ideal. Hundreds of women of this type have served business long, laboriously, passionately, capably, resting their claims to business recognition on business merit. But while it is true that without a worthy business performance to her credit the business woman can hardly expect outstanding reward, it is equally true that something more is required. Business is operated only to a limited extent along idealistic lines. Those who are in a position to confer business rewards do not come forward, except in rare instances, with open hands. Rewards are won through struggle more often than bestowed; authority is seized more often than delegated; voices must insist on making themselves heard in business councils, for they will seldom be invited, far less urged, to participate. After all, women are late-comers — the business world is still a man’s realm, and it is of the very essence of the business career that it is a vigorous affair. There are women, as men, for whom its give and take, frequently of hard blows, provides exactly the fillip that gives zest to existence. But it is a question whether women who shrink from the necessary steps to preferment in this rough-and-tumble world are preëminently fitted for it.

None the less, just such women are needed by business. No one, I imagine, would claim with any seriousness that the entrance of women into business — millions of them — has thus far made any appreciable impression on the business spirit. It is a noteworthy JUS well as deplorable fact that where women have become employers they have almost without exception fallen into those same practices that have made men the target of business critics. It is therefore to the vision of a relatively small group of business women who refuse to relinquish their business ideals, and to whom existing conditions are not congenial, that we must look for some of the leaven of business life. These are women who have been drawn into business, in part at least , by their desire to feel themselves factors in social growth and welfare.

Happily there remains for business women in general one means of attaining satsifaction in business life, or an aid to that end, which has not yet been developed to anything like the extent to which it is, I believe, susceptible. I refer to the cultivation on their part of friendly relations with business men. Friendship among business men is the cement that holds them together in mutually profitable business efforts.

Men advance in business quite as often because they are liked by other men as because they are capable. Women, in their efforts to prove themselves, have too often sacrificed the business graces to a rigorous but sterile pursuit of the business virtues. If business men have been far from hospitable to business women, the women, on the other hand, are not wholly free from blame. They have accepted too readily the rôle of competitors; have shown perhaps as often as men — in recent years, at any rate — a streak, only lightly veiled, of antagonism.

There is need, unquestionably, for radical readjustment on both sides — for greater magnanimity from business men, and for more deft, more skillful adaptation from business women. If the business woman will insist on agreeing that the business man is an adversary, she must recognize that he is a powerful one and that, on the whole, her chances are probably better of winning than of whipping him. But should the miracle of miracles happen, and the business man decide to cultivate the friendship of the business woman, a diplomatic victory of no mean calibre would be achieved, with the participants on both sides thereby immeasurably strengthened.