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Working Girl: A History of Women in the Workplace

Sandra Day O'Connor-the first woman named to the U.S. Supreme Court-graduated third in her class from Stanford Law School in 1952. According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, when Sandra Day O'Connor pursued a job as a lawyer, she faced intense discrimination against women in the workplace and was repeatedly rebuffed by firms that wouldn't hire women.

But Sandra Day O-Connor did get an offer to work as a legal secretaryWomen have come a long way, looking back at the beginning history of women in the workplace. NALP, The Association for Legal Career Professionals, says 45 percent of law firm associates are women. Women enroll in college more than men, and their workforce numbers have improved.

Mark Penn writes in his book "Microtrends" that "While women dominated first in teaching and nursing, their upward mobility has led to a new tier of professional success beyond those careers. ... As women everywhere have entered the workforce and gotten more education, a whole new set of professional jobs is opening up to them."

Penn says "women are on the verge of taking over word-based professions, like journalism, law, marketing, and communications." But despite the rising number of women in the workplace and America's offices and classrooms, there are still problems.  Women in the workplace are still underrepresented in professions involving math and science, and a gender pay gap remains.

Education and the History of Women in the Workplace

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women made up 42 percent of undergraduate enrollment in 1970, some 50 percent in 1977, and 57 percent in 2005. They're also gaining ground in advanced degrees:

  • Women accounted for 47 percent of law school enrollments in 2006-2007, according to the American Bar Association, up from 8.6 percent in 1970-1971;
  • In 2006-2007, 49 percent of medical school enrollments were women, up from 9.6 percent in 1970-1971, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Meanwhile, more women are working than ever before in the history of women in the workplace. In 1970, only about 43 percent of women 16 and older were working; by 1999, that figure jumped to 60 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says.

Experts say higher education is a big reason why there are more women in the workplace and pursuing different careers.

"I think a lot has to do with a thirst for education and the opportunities now provided to [women]. ... We've made a giant step forward in 50 years and a lot has to do with opportunities in education," says Vicki Donlan, a Massachusetts-based author and consultant.

Karen Page, a New York-based author and founder of professional women's organizations, says as women are successful and visible in different fields, they serve as role models to younger women struggling in the workplace. "For decades, career advice books have suggested that women look for fields where other women have succeeded; it's much harder to be a pioneer," she says.

A Gender Pay Gap, and Other Hurdles for Women in the Workplace

Though there have been great strides for women in the workplace, experts say they have miles to go before they overcome all of the equality problems. Women in the workplace particularly face hurdles within math- and science-related fields such as technology and engineering.

"I just think historically there's a tradition that women shouldn't be interested in this sort of thing. It's a shame and I've seen this happen with people I know who were very good in math and science and just moved away from that in their high school years," says Dr. Laurence Shatkin, a career information expert. He says that because of the given history of women in the workplace, women can be discouraged from these fields by teachers, employers, and even themselves.

Along with the problems women in the workplace face, there's the issue of the gender pay gap, a problem which has continually promoted inequality among men and women in the workplace time line. The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation's 2007 report, "Behind the Pay Gap," says college-educated women in the workplace still earn less than their male counterparts (controlling for hours, occupation, parenthood and other pay-related factors).

Experts have different ideas about why the gender pay gap exists.

Sally Haver, senior vice president of business development at The Ayers Group in New York, says, "People who are hiring will pay less to women because they think they can, or they can get away with it or women aren't as pushy, aren't as convinced of their value to the company."

Linda Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says women are less likely than men to negotiate to reach the next level of the organization.  As long as a gender pay gap remains, there will be women struggling in the workplace for equality.

Additional Links:
Gender Pay Gap - 10 High Paying Jobs for Women

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