Women in business Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite the steady rise in the percentage of women in the corporate workforce since World War II, women have faced a number of challenges, legal and social, in achieving equality in the business world.

Women have always worked, but society has not always equally valued their work and that of men. The advent of the American Industrial Revolution brought an ever-increasing compartmentalization of social life. Women and men who worked side by side on the farm in an agrarian culture became separated in a manufacturing-oriented society. Women stayed home and tended to child rearing and domestic responsibilities while men went to the city or factory to seek wage labor. The gender separation of the private sphere, or home life, from the public sphere, or working world, was not an equal division of labor. Male wage labor and public work was accorded greater value and direct compensation. In economic terms, men’s work had exchange value because the money earned could be used to purchase goods. Away from public view, child care and housework became devalued and were not financially compensated. In economic terms, this work had use value but not exchange value. These economic realities were rooted in lingering beliefs about the proper roles for men and women in Western culture. The Cult of True Womanhood, a social belief that dominated the nineteenth century, regarded women as too moral and pure to participate in the harsh, competitive realities of the business world.Women;in business[business]

Impact of World War II

World War II ruptured historical ideas about women working. While men participated in the armed services, women replaced them in factories that supported the war effort and maintained domestic goods. The role reversal altered women’s consciousness about paid labor. Although most working women were laid off after the war, opinion polls indicated that the majority of women enjoyed the experience of working and wanted to continue. Since the large but brief drop-off following the war, the annual percentage of women participating in the labor force has increased steadily. Women, however, have not been universally accepted into the workplace.

At first, women were segregated into positions in which it was deemed fitting for them to work. These positions, such as clerical or nursing, were often in the service of more prestigious male positions and entitled women to lower compensation. A gender-based division of labor was thus created. Even when women managed to enter a male-dominated position, they often found that the job was transformed into a less prestigious one, for which they received lower pay. An example from the corporate world is the position of clerk. An office clerk was a highly regarded, responsible employee at the beginning of the twentieth century. As women entered the profession, it became a more routinized, subservient, and lower-compensated position. Nevertheless, the latter part of the twentieth century saw business demographics change dramatically from the almost exclusively white male appearance of the 1950’s. The prevalence of businesswomen during the 1980’s was attested to by the proliferation of magazines targeted to women such as Working Woman and Working Mother, the emergence of support organizations for working women, and the greater use of inclusive language to describe jobs.

Challenges at the Office

Numerous obstacles have prevented or discouraged women from participating in corporate life in North America. The most obvious obstacle has been Sexismsexism. Before 1967, when an executive order added sex Discrimination;workplacediscrimination to the areas covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was no federal law to prevent employers from refusing to hire women because of their gender. The pervasive belief was that women should not participate in paid labor; if they did, it was only for extra money (referred to as “pin” money) beyond what their husbands brought home. This belief assumed a middle-class, married existence that did not apply in the case of single women and poor families. Given these beliefs, women’s average wages have been low, representing only a fraction of men’s wages. This pay difference is often referred to as the wage gap. The Equal Pay Act of 1963Equal Pay Act of 1963 ended wage discrimination in jobs in which the qualifications and responsibilities are equal; however, proving wage discrimination is often difficult because seldom do two individuals possess exactly the same qualifications and responsibilities. Although the wage gap improved somewhat during the twentieth century, women’s wages still hovered at approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of men’s wages during the 1990’s.

Another challenge facing women who wish to enter the corporate world has been sexual harassment. Although it exists at all levels within corporations, sexual harassment has been a particularly vexing problem for women seeking to advance in leadership positions, because sexual harassment is an issue of power. Statistics are difficult to obtain, but evidence indicates that sexual harassment is pervasive and that the remedies may be as bad as the harassment itself. The majority of women who are harassed eventually leave their positions.

Another obstacle for corporate career women is childbearing. Taking time off to give birth and rear children can severely hurt a woman’s career advancement; a similarly qualified male who does not take such time off faces no such obstacle. Before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, no federal law protected women against discrimination leading to hiring, firing, or promotion related to pregnancy. Not until 1993 did the United States enact a federal family leave law, though it is weak compared with its European counterparts. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides for twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the care of a new child or sick family member; European versions of the law provide for paid leave. The unpaid aspect of the law has caused many to speculate that only the wealthy are likely to take advantage of it.

The combination of these challenges has resulted in slowing the climb of women up the corporate ladder. Despite these obstacles, however, women continue to be hired at corporations in record numbers. The 1980’s and 1990’s found more women in middle management, though few have broken through the “glass ceiling” to achieve top management positions. Even during the 1990’s, the number of women who were chief executive officers (CEOs) of Fortune 500 companies could be counted on one hand.

Challenges at Home

Women who work have often faced special challenges at home as well as at their workplaces. The legacy of associating domestic labor with women remained strong at the turn of the twenty-first century. Statistics reveal that although women have entered the workforce in record numbers, those living with husbands or boyfriends have not significantly decreased their domestic labor. On average, marriage brings with it seven to ten hours of additional housework for women. This leaves them with a double duty of paid labor and housework. The extra work asked of women is sometimes referred to as the second shift. The stress associated with this double duty was the source of much discussion during the 1990’s. The superwoman syndrome is a term coined to describe efforts by women to be successful at the workplace and at home. The standards for domestic success were established by the previous generation of mothers who, by and large, stayed home and were able to maintain high norms of cleanliness and order around the house.

In addition to primary responsibility for housework, women are still generally regarded as the primary parental caretaker. The pressure to provide significant time for the needs of children is another source of stress for women in the workforce. The availability of affordable, quality child care is a major issue for working women. Many corporations recognize the need to offer affordable child care; a 1990 survey indicated that 64 percent of the companies surveyed offered some type of child care assistance, and only 9 percent offered in-house child care. Large corporations have the resources to offer such benefits, but small businesses, which employ the majority of all workers in North America, are less likely to provide child care.

Economic Challenges

Lower corporate profits during the 1980’s and 1990’s caused many companies to seek innovative methods for trimming costs. One method was the increased use of what is known as contingency labor. Employment;contingentContingent labor is a catch-all category that includes temporary employees, contract employees, job sharing, and part-time work. Corporations view contingent labor as positive because they are seldom obligated to provide such employees with benefits or make long-term commitments to them. Contingent employees can usually be laid off with little notice. Contingent employment has become a gender issue in North America and Europe because the vast majority of contingent employees are women. Socially, contingent employees are not considered part of the company and usually do not forge the same kind of relationships as permanent employees. The work is often routine, and little effort is given to explaining the context for it. Because they lack a strong relationship to the company, contingent employees are also subject to a higher frequency of sexual harassment. The increasing trend toward contingent employment is likely to receive continued feminist and legislative attention.

Overcoming the Corporate Environment

Despite the challenges that confront women, they are still entering the workforce in record numbers and working their way through the corporate environment. One issue surrounding the greater presence of women is whether the corporation will change them or if they will change the corporation. Corporations in North America were established by men with male standards and expectations for communication, socialization, motivation, and so on. Women are attempting to succeed in a male environment, but do they have to adopt stereotypical male behavior? The answer is yes and no. Some women have succeeded by emulating male behavior, whereas others have found that their own skills have brought them success. One key method for women’s success during the 1980’s and 1990’s has been effective mentoring. As women break into managerial positions, they act as mentors to women who have managerial potential, although good mentors can be male or female.

Some feminists advocate affirmative action as a method for overcoming sexism in hiring practices. Although equal opportunity (or nondiscrimination) is mandated by federal law, affirmative action is the voluntary response of corporations to actively hire women, members of ethnic groups, and people with disabilities. Such hiring practices are intended to improve corporate performance through greater diversity and to provide opportunities for people who have faced discrimination.

Another response advocated by some feminists is the notion of comparable worth, which is intended to help overcome the wage gap. Many male-dominated sectors of the economy offer higher wages than sectors dominated by women. This is true even when the skill level for the female-dominated position is equal to or greater than that of the male-dominated position. For example, in the same corporation, a truck driver is often compensated at a higher wage than an executive secretary, who typically possesses computer knowledge, managerial responsibility, and time management and writing skills. Some argue that the reason for the pay differential is historical gender discrimination. One method to overcome such discrimination is to have a compensation system that attempts to measure skills and abilities objectively and to determine comparable worth and pay accordingly. Many companies have adopted objective compensation systems, though market forces are still the major determinant of pay level.

The Body Shop, Mrs. Fields Cookies, and Mary Kay Cosmetics are examples of businesses started by women. A number of women who have been frustrated by the male-dominated corporate environment have started their own companies. In many parts of North America, the number of women applying for business licenses surpassed those sought by men during the 1990’s. Some theorize that women possess skills that represent a good fit for business ownership, including the ability to handle a number of varied tasks, good communication skills, and flexibility. The availability of numerous support organizations and financial assistance have led women to open their own businesses in record numbers.

Twenty-first Century Trends

Despite the advances in the workplace made by women during the late twentieth century, a significant gap in pay continued to exist into the twenty-first century. Although women can and do obtain the position and responsibility within companies at a much higher pay rates than in years past, those roles do not always provide a pay scale equivalent to that of their male counterparts. One argument that has been made in regard to pay is that women do not ask for what they feel they are worth. Many women, despite their ability to master their assigned duties, apparently do not wish to risk not obtaining their positions by asking for their full value. Instead, they hope that by proving themselves on the job they will be rewarded. Through the first decade of the twenty-first century, the gender gap in pay continued to hold steady, with women earning about seventy-five cents for each dollar men earn doing similar work. This corporate bias is trending downward, and should lessen as more and more baby boomer executives, many of them men, retire and pass those roles onto successors.

In some large corporations, such as PepsiCo, Xerox, Kraft Foods, and Avon, women have made great strides, with women rising to chief executive officer and chair of the board levels. Other companies, such as Morgan-Stanley, Procter & Gamble, and DuPont, appeared ready to move women into top positions. Even with these advances, women still trailed the top male executives when it comes to income, with men making four times what women do. However, the gap has been closing.

Further Reading
  • Amott, Teresa L., and Julie A. Matthaei. Race, Gender, and Work: A Multicultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Boston: South End Press, 1991. Detailed account and analysis of North American women’s work histories for various cultural groups, including the experiences of American Indians, Chicanas, European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Puerto Ricans.
  • Anderson, Terry H. The Pursuit of Fairness: A History of Affirmative Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Addresses all aspects of the history of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity law and practice in the United States, with special attention to the rights of women workers.
  • Fagenson, Ellen A. Women in Management: Trends, Issues, and Challenges in Managerial Diversity. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993. Collection of essays by economists, female managers, and business scholars focusing on the issues facing female managers in a diverse corporate environment.
  • Godfrey, Joline. Our Wildest Dreams: Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun, Doing Good. New York: Harper Business, 1992. Describes the growing phenomenon of female entrepreneurs and how these women redefine success beyond simply the bottom line.
  • Gregory, Raymond F. Women and Workplace Discrimination: Overcoming Barriers to Gender Equality. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Traces the history of federal measures enacted to prevent employers from discriminating against women in the workplace. Uses court cases to illustrate points.
  • Iannello, Kathleen P. Decisions Without Hierarchy: Feminist Interventions in Organization Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1992. Brings feminism and organizational theory together in an analysis of three feminist organizations and a proposition for a modified consensus model as a nonsexist approach to structuring organizations and businesses.
  • Nicarthy, Ginny, Naomi Gottlieb, and Sandra Coffman. You Don’t Have to Take It! A Woman’s Guide to Confronting Emotional Abuse at Work. Seattle: Seal Press, 1993. Discusses the variety of emotional challenges that women face at work; explains legal remedies and strategies to overcome discrimination.

Affirmative action programs

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

Indra K. Nooyi

Seneca Falls Convention

Martha Stewart


Madam C. J. Walker

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