Women Still Find Obstacles in the Workplace
Women’s rights bill marks 100 years
By: Mark Ginocchio
Even when a landmark Supreme Court decision apparently handed a victory to women’s rights in the workplace, there was a catch.
The court declared a “woman’s physical structure put her at a disadvantage,” said Elizabeth Hohl, professor of history at Fairfield University. “They had to preserve the strength of the race. These kinds of laws inhibited a woman’s ability to compete in the workplace.”
The decision in question was a result of the 1908 case Muller v. Oregon, that upheld a state restriction on the number of hours a woman could work in a day.
That decision, and a review of how far women’s equality in the workplace has come since 1908, were the featured topics yesterday during a panel discussion at Norwalk Community College.
The event was co-sponsored by the college’s Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the English department, Fairfield County Women’s Center and the Women’s Studies Program. More than 100 students listened to the three- person panel talk about the perception of working women, the wages they earn, their maternity rights and other issues.
The Muller case, marking its 100-year anniversary this year, is especially important because it reinforced the idea that women were different than men, Hohl said.
In the case, the owner of a laundry was convicted of violating Oregon labor law by forcing a female employee to work in excess of 10 hours a day.
Though progressives at the time celebrated the decision, some women’s rights activist thought otherwise, Hohl said.
“What does it mean when we believe women are especially different from men?” Hohl asked.
Women’s bodies in the workplace have always “presented trouble somehow,” said Catherine Milton, an associate professor of English at NCC.
Though what was also troublesome for Milton was how reformists always seemed to merge women’s workplace issues with racial ones.
“It seems impossible for America to talk about women and gender without invoking metaphors of race,” she said.
Seamstresses were called “slaves of the needle,” while others called their lack of rights “worse than Negro servitude,” Milton said.
David Levinson, NCC president, reviewed statistics that showed while women are closing the inequality gap with men, they still earn less and play less prominent roles in the workplace.
Women consist of about 46 percent of the work force with a median weekly salary of $600, compared with $743 for men, he said.
By 2014, it’s expected that women will make up 51 percent of the labor force, but “that still doesn’t consider unpaid labor” like housewives and raising children “which is an important thing that someone should be capturing,” Levinson added.
The United States lags significantly behind other countries regarding the amount of maternity compensation given to women.
Countries such as Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan give as much as three months of maternity leave at 100 percent pay, while the United States still does not mandate any financial compensation for leave, he said.
While dissecting the perception of managerial women in the workplace and how they delegate differently, the topic of the Democratic race for president was mentioned.
One questioner wondered whether U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton would be deemed too weak if she espoused U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign theme of “working together.”
When men speak similar messages in the corporate workplace, it may not be coming from a feminist perspective, Milton said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it in the bank,” she said. “If we don’t see the wage gap decreasing . . . it’s just play acting.”
Tell us: Are women becoming more equal in the workplace?