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Leaders and Landmarks in the History of Women in the Workplace

In honor of national Women's History Month, iRelaunch takes a look at women in the workplace

By Nikki Steingold

Nikki Steingold joined the iRelaunch team in 2011 as Director of Marketing and retired in 2020 as Chief Marketing Officer. During her nearly 10-year tenure at iRelaunch she built the iRelaunch Return to Work Roadmap based on Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin's bestselling book, "Back on the Career Track" (affiliate link) and conceived and lead the development of the award-winning "3, 2, 1 iRelaunch" podcast series. Nikki currently provides pro bono marketing experience for non-profits through Catchafire and is founder of the popular blog "Not Yet Dead."

March is Women’s History Month in the United States – a month-long celebration designated to “commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” “Valiant Women of the Vote” pays homage to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, honoring "the brave women who fought to win suffrage rights for women, and for the women who continue to fight for the voting rights of others." We thought we’d take this opportunity to look at the history of women in the workplace, the strides we’ve taken, and the hurdles we’ve yet to clear.

In 1920, the Women’s Bureau in the US Department of Labor was formed to “formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” Prior to that time, female workers in the labor market were generally young and unmarried, almost always leaving the workforce upon marriage. The stigma about a married woman working outside of the home was due to the nature of the job and its conditions. However, these dirty and dangerous environments and long days of repetitive work led to the early formation of many labor unions for women. In 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote and thereby affording them more of a voice in the workplace and beyond.

Toward the start of the 1930s, as high school enrollments and graduation increased among women and the demand for office and clerical workers grew with the proliferation of office technologies, more women joined the workforce. During World War II, a massive government and media campaign resulted in nearly 7 million women joining the workforce in factories and shipyards to support the war effort and more than 400,000 women joining the military. Immediately following the war, the Women’s Pay Act of 1945 – first ever legislation to require equal pay, was introduced in Congress. However, it would take 18 years before an equal pay bill would be signed by President John F. Kennedy.

The married women’s labor force participation continued to expand in the 1950s to 1970s, Despite large gains in employment, married women were still the secondary earners in their households. In the 1960s, as the divorce rate increased and women married later in age, the need for their economic independence grew. Women’s identities shifted from the world of family and household to career. As the expansion of part-time work opportunities for married women came about, there was an increase in the number of married women in labor force.

On the suggestion of Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau of the Dept of Labor, President John F. Kennedy established the first national Commission on the Status of Women. In 1963 the Commission issued a report detailing employment discrimination, unequal pay, legal inequality, and insufficient support systems for women. That same year, the Equal Pay Act was passed, requiring that men and women be given equal pay for equal work in the same establishment. Specifically, the EPA provides “that employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.”

In 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment measure won congressional approval as the 27th amendment, 49 years after it was introduced. However, it was defeated when only 35 states passed the measure, three fewer than the 38 required for ratification. Recently though, on January 30, 2020, three states (Virginia, Illinois, and Nevada) urged a federal judge to declare that the proposed Equal Rights Amendment as now part of the U.S. Constitution, after Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.

In the 1970s and 1980s, girls began to take more college preparation courses in high school and female college attendance and graduation rates grew relative to males. With the innovation of “the Pill” and changes in state laws which provided access by single women, the 70s and 80s allowed women to plan their careers before planning families and to be taken more seriously by their employers and advisors.

As dual-career families continued to grow, it became clear that federal regulation would be important to support the working class who desired to raise a family and/or required time off for illness-related situations. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to provide job-protected leave to employees who need time off to care for themselves or their families.

Despite these measures, employees still worry about negative consequences of taking a career break. According to the 2019 Lean In “Women in the Workplace Report,” over the last five years, “a majority of employees have become new parents or dealt with a significant personal or family health issue. About half of these employees took leave. Many who did not take leave were able to handle the situation without a break in work, but others point to concerns about work responsibilities, fear that it might negatively impact their career trajectory, or financial concerns. Moreover, more than 1 in 4 employees who took leave say it hurt their career or finances—and this is particularly true for women.” The report goes on to say that women feel more negative consequences when they take leave: 20% of women who’ve taken a leave say it negatively impacted their career, compared to 10% of men.

In 2007, Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin began their research on mid-career professionals returning to work after a career break and co-authored, “Back on the Career Track (affiliate link)” on the subject. To research the book, they interviewed more than 100 women who had re-entered the workforce including Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who returned to work after five years at home raising her sons.

That same year, iRelaunch was founded and by 2008, Cohen began studying the subject globally. Her publications in the Harvard Business review, including the seminal article 'The 40-Year-Old Intern,’ along with numerous other articles, speaking engagements, and her TED talk, “How to get back to work after a career break” with nearly 3.7 million views, have established her as the leading expert on career re-entry and advocate for formal career re-entry programs in the form of professional internships.

In the coming years, the mandate for a safe and respectful workplace with the security to be able to report disrespectful and intolerant behavior without fear of reprisal, work/life flexibility, and a commitment to equal opportunity and diversity in all forms will continue. Progressive organizations’ leadership will set the example of fairness and acceptable behavior and will empower their employees to build a more inclusive, safe, and flexible workplace. And iRelaunch will continue to advocate for women and other professionals who have taken a career break to return to work in positions that recognize their experience, motivation, and value.


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