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Nora T. Akins Headshot

Behaviors Lag Behind Policies

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The purpose of the Women's Bureau was to establish policies to promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities. The Bureau was established by the Department of Labor in 1920, the year women won the right to vote and comprised 21% of the gainfully employed in this country. It grew out of an agency named Women in Industry Service which investigated the readjustment women were having after World War I.

Like the Women in Industry Service, the Women's Bureau investigated working conditions and industries accepting female employees. Subsequent reports by this agency had significant policy impact. These successes included opening the Civil Service Examinations to both sexes; the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 forbidding fixing wages based on age or sex; the Equal Pay Act of 1963; and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More recent historical initiatives include employer-sponsored child care, and non-traditional employment opportunities.

Fifty years ago President Kennedy established The President's Commission on the Status of Women to write an in-depth report on the status of working women. Ester Peterson, the Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the Women's Bureau encouraged this Executive Order. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the Commission. Though Eleanor Roosevelt died before the report was published, the report includes her statement of hope, I feel confident in the years ahead many of the remaining outmoded barriers to women's aspirations will disappear.

Recently, Harvard Business Review gathered research in business, psychology and sociology focused on women in the workplace. Whether outmoded barriers have disappeared or not, McKinsey's statistics find few women in higher ranks of organizations. This research surveyed 60 major corporations to find women making up 53% of entry level positions, 40% of managers, 35% of directors, 27% of vice presidents, 24% of senior vice presidents and 19% of executives in the C-suite.

Catalyst is an international non-profit organization focused on workplace inclusion research. After studying 1660 business school graduates, it found men get more critical assignments that lead to advancement than women. Men's projects had budgets twice the size and three times as many people assigned to assist compared to women. More men (30% vs. 22%) received budgets of more than $10 million. More men (56% vs. 46%) received profit and loss responsibility. Perhaps most important is more men (33% vs. 25%) reported receiving a great deal of attention from the C-Suite.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics show the largest wage gaps between men and women are in sales positions. Women's pay as a percentage of men's in sales positions ranges from 62.5% to 66%. Saleswomen had been given inferior accounts and denied support staff and other support which would improve performance in a Wharton study of two large stockbrokerages.

Benevolent sexism was found in two studies, one surveying energy industry managers, the other a Wall Street law firm. Women received less criticism, less challenging assignments, thus less opportunity to advance. In the law firm, women received more positive performance appraisals than men. Yet 15% of the men and 6% of the women were being considered as potential partners.

Have these subtle barriers replaced the outmoded barriers? Status-based discrimination was revealed in a sociological study where students were given recruitment packets of equally qualified candidates. Researchers indicated those who were parents. Mothers were much less likely to be recommended for hire; fathers were not penalized at all. When mothers were chosen, they were offered $11,000 less than childless women. Watch for unintentional disparate treatment in your workplace. Disparate impact prevails, despite policy advancements.