The Path to Powerful Women in the Workplace

With the growing discussion of women in today’s workplace — propelled by recent headlines made by powerful female leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo — I believe it is important to recognize the path paved before us to truly grasp the full context of our place in history – and our role moving forward.

Unfortunately, you need a microscope to find much history of women in early America. As bad as things were in Colonial days, they actually regressed in the 19th century and only improved later.

“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” 
― Virginia Woolf

Women’s Education

We have all heard over and over again the idea that “woman’s place is in the home,” and this really did not change until the last 50 or 60 years. Traditionally, most girls in America were taught to cook, sew, clean, care for children, and stay at home with them, leaving everything else to the men. Education was primarily for boys, and secondarily for girls.

It was only in the 19th century that female students started to increase significantly and higher education was broadened by the rise of women’s colleges and admission of women to regular colleges and universities. By the turn of the century, 20% of the degrees were granted to women. By the mid-80’s 49% of all Masters degrees and about 33% of all Doctorate degrees were granted to women. By 1985, over half of the college students were women. Then by 2010, approximately 58% of Bachelor degrees in the United States were earned by women. *

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 
― Nelson Mandela

Women’s Legal Rights

During the early history of the United States, the legal status of women was such that a man virtually owned his wife and children as he did his material possessions. In divorce law, generally the divorced husband kept legal control of both children and property. Women had very little standing in law in the courts until the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870.

Women at Work

In all probability, World War II was really the key to our overall changed status in American history: because all the men were in the army, women were allowed to work because the economy required additional workers. Women began working outside of their homes in large numbers – notably in textile mills and garment shops. The working conditions were abominable and women and children worked as long as 12 hours a day.

Most of the laws dealing with women’s economic status were passed during the 1960’s, such as equal pay, and the Civil Rights Act of 1967, which was ordered by the President and prohibited bias against women in hiring by Federal Contractors.  It is really hard to believe that here we were in the 1960’s – almost 175 years after the founding of our country — and we were just finally getting around to the government recognizing some equality for women in the workplace.

Women in Politics

Even though women have had the right to vote since 1920, our political roles have been minimal until more recently. It was not until 1984 that a major party chose a woman to run for Vice President.  The first woman elected to Congress was in 1917 – Jeanette Rankin from Montana.  Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was really a great breakthrough when she was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1945. Then Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman elected to the Senate in 1949 and since then, more and more of the taboos have fallen.

So the breakthroughs have come slowly, but they have come.

“In politics, If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” 

― Margaret Thatcher 

Paving the Way for Women in Today’s Workplace

The hard work and all of the efforts on the part of early women’s rights pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony — combined with the economic affects of World War II and the subsequent growth of the country with the need for additional work force — opened up opportunities in the last half of the 20th century that would be totally beyond the belief of those who proceeded us.

If these women were to come back and look at the women making news in powerful positions today, they would be absolutely dumb-founded. They would marvel at Hillary Clinton, our first female Secretary of State; at Jill Abramson, the first Executive Editor of New York Times, Co.; at Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo.; and at Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Lean In, along with her Lean In organization, have helped a new movement rise in today’s workforce of women.

In a recent interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Sandberg said “I wrote Lean In because I really want to help change the conversation around women from what we can’t do to what we can. No matter how much progress women have made, we’re not close to getting our share of the leadership roles in any industry anywhere in the world.”

Sandberg is right: with all the strides we have made, we have only just begun. There is so much more that must be accomplished for women. With everything that has happened – we still don’t have true equal pay; we still don’t have equal access to jobs, especially those in traditionally male-dominated fields such as math, science, and technology.

So while we can look back with pride on the accomplishments, we must also look forward with determination to break down the remaining barriers that limit women’s opportunities. I applaud the Lean In organization and similar efforts around the world that are working to ensure that with each passing year, our presence in American history will no longer need a microscope to be seen.

* stats from the National Center for Education Statistics