Job Discrimination and What Women Can Do About It

“More women will have to become much more aggressive than they are at present if equal opportunity in employment is to be achieved.”


It is extremely difficult to obtain data on the operation and incidence of job discrimination against women. Employers do not put up signs saying "no women need apply" even when this is the unstated policy of their gate-keeping personnel managers. Some women are unaware that their ambitions are being arbitrarily thwarted, and many others are reluctant to discuss the painful and infuriating encounters they have had with job discrimination. Those of us who research and write about the status of women, or who are active in women's rights organizations, frequently hear confidential stories of women's experiences with discrimination in the job world.

My own files of such accounts have expanded enormously in recent years as a result of the growing concern for and assertiveness of women on this issue. Here are only a few illustrations, in the words of the women themselves, of certain types of discrimination that they have experienced. An engineering student at MIT reports:

For years I have had to fight to retain my interest in aeronautics. My high school teacher thought I was crazy to even think of going into aeronautical engineering. My mother said I'd never find a man willing to marry a woman who likes to "tinker with motors," as she put it. My professors say I won't get a job in industry and should switch to another engineering specialty.

A graduate student in musicology writes:

All through college my professors tried to push me toward the good old reliable field of teaching music at the grade school level. I have resisted this, but it wasn't easy, and I know many women who just save up and are now teaching at the lower grade level instead of becoming a composer, musician, or musicologist.

An older woman who returned to the university to work toward a doctorate in economics after years in business reported:

My first day in graduate school I was greeted with the comment of an economics professor: "Women have no place in economics." He refused to mark the papers of the women students. We protested to the department but they upheld the prerogative of the faculty. The man in question was a visiting professor and they didn't want to "impose on him"! Never mind the effect on the women students!

These quotes all illustrate attempts on the part of parents and teachers to depress and redirect women away from their chosen professional ambitions. By far the larger emphasis in both my research and correspondence files concerns the experience of women in the job world itself. One woman who worked for a year in an architectural firm wrote:

I never wanted to teach grade school children, which I am doing now. But I found so much prejudice and resentment against me in my first job in an architectural firm, where the men refused to take me seriously, that I couldn't take it. I left and switched to teaching art. At least I feel welcome in a school.

A woman interested in a career in college administration writes:

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.

The reaction of these two women to covert discrimination against them was a quiet acceptance: one withdrew to another field, the other fumed but stayed put in her low-status administrative job. The next example shows goal restriction in the process of formation. Looking back on her three years of job experience since she graduated from college, one woman said:

I've learned a lot of hard lessons since I left college. A woman must be competent in her present position, but she must not aspire to a higher one. If it is offered to her, she must show surprise and gratitude. If she shows ambition, the competition and general disdain toward women executives will cost her social acceptance. For a single woman, that social acceptance is important. I used to aim much higher than I do now, but I have learned the game, and try to accept the level at which women seem to be kept, without feeling too bitter about it all.

The net effect of such discouragement is expressed by an academic woman who has adopted the compliant female stance:

Ask a man's opinion about your ideas, show gratitude for his help, make your points as questions, listen with respect and interest to his ideas, and in this way you may be accepted. Even the most insecure type of male will not resent your achievements if you are quiet about them.

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.).

One of the most pressing needs for legal change at the moment is to amend Section 702 of Title VII to exclude the current exemption of discrimination in the employment of teachers and administrative personnel of educational institutions. Teaching, from preschool through graduate and professional schools, is the single largest occupation college-trained American women enter, yet there is no federal legislation to protect women teachers against discrimination based on their sex. Teaching is also the career field in which women have been losing ground during the past several decades: the proportion of 'women secondary-school teachers has declined from 68 percent of the total in the 1920S to 46 percent in 1966; the proportion of college and university women teachers has declined from 28 percent in 1940 to 22 percent in 1966; at the administrative level, women had been 55 percent of the elementary-school principals in the early 1920s but were only 22 percent by 1966. It is imperative that women's employment rights in the teaching profession be protected and expanded by amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to cover educational personnel.

A second urgently needed amendment to Title VII is the inclusion of a prohibition against discrimination based on marital status. Whether an individual is single, married, divorced, or widowed is no proper concern of an employer, nor is it relevant to job performance if a spouse, a parent, or a sibling is already an employee. Rules against the hiring of married women whose husbands work in the same school or department of a college or university are among the greatest barriers to career opportunity and advancement among women teachers It is a fact of social life that women marry men who live and study in their immediate environment. Propinquity sets the range within which mates are chosen at all levels of society. For the better-educated segments of the population, this fact of mate selection means an increased probability that women headed for academic teaching and research careers meet and marry men headed for the same careers. No other single topic is the subject of as much concern among graduate students and young faculty women as this question of whether and where a husband and wife can find and keep jobs when their training is in the same general field.

Some gains have been made in this respect, for there are now some outstanding couples who have joint appointments in the same department at the same university. The fact that it takes an "'outstanding" pair is, however, an index of how far from solved the general problem is. So long as the women or the couples must be "exceptional" to qualify for the treatment that is automatically accorded to "average" men in the teaching profession, the problem is essentially unsolved.

It is still a rare occurrence for women to assert themselves and protest their exclusion from consideration for teaching and research positions on the grounds of marital status. It is a hopeful sign that the Equal Rights Division of the Department of Industry, Labor, and Human Relations in Wisconsin recently informed the University of Wisconsin (in response to complaints filed by married women) that "the imposition of a rule barring husband and wife from the same department will be regarded as sex discrimination when the marital relationship is unrelated to the job and the ability of the woman to perform." But more women will have to become much more aggressive than they are at present if equal opportunity in employment is to be achieved.

One of the things they could and must do during 1970 is to mount a concerted campaign to make sure that the bills currently pending in Congress to amend Title VII are supplemented with sections that assure coverage of educational institutions under the terms of the Civil Rights Act barring sex discrimination, and that prohibit discrimination based on marital status. Neither of these two extensions is among the proposed amendments pending in Congress.

Women have a precarious hold on positions in the labor market. Like the blacks and the very young, they have traditionally been the expendable portion of the labor force which employers have been free to woo or reject in accordance with fluctuations in production, sales, patient; client, or student load. Only 40 percent of employed women work full time all year; 32 percent work full time part of the year, and 20 percent work part time for part of the year. As a result, most employed women do not build up seniority in their jobs, and it is far easier for employers simply not to hire additional workers than to fire long-standing employees. Clues to future instability of women's hold on jobs are already apparent in recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data on unemployment rates: that the rate declined between the summer of 1969 and late fall 1969 has been found to be attributable not to increased success in finding jobs but to withdrawal of unemployed women and young people from the attempt to find new jobs. When it is further realized that the supply of trained teachers, for the first time in twenty-five years, is beginning to exceed the demand for such teachers, it becomes all the more urgent that legislation be enacted that protects the rights of women to find and hold the jobs for which they are trained.

Should these protections against discrimination on the basis of sex not be enacted, we can predict increased militancy by American women. Such militancy among women, as among blacks, will not be evidence of psychological instability but a response to the frustration of rising expectations. Militant women in the 1970s may be spurned and spat upon as the suffragists were during the decade before the vote was won for women in 1920. But it must be recognized that such militant women will win legal, economic, and political rights for the daughters of today's traditionalist Aunt Bettys, just as our grandmothers won the vote that women can exercise today.