Share this article

print logo

Overt sex bias is losing ground Slights, harassments are less prevalent

When Joan Bender first joined the leadership ranks of the union for white-collar employees in Erie County government, past practice gave each man his own hotel room on trips to labor meetings and conferences. Women had to share a room.

And on Kathy Frank's first day at the General Motors Powertrain plant, about 30 years ago, a male co-worker walked up, looked her over and said, "Oh boy, I could really use you."

"I was really taken aback. [But] you just sort of ignored it, and that was probably the best way to handle it," said Frank, now 60, a Grand Island resident who is still employed at the plant as a tool technician.

These are examples of the slights, unfair treatment and outright harassment that women have endured in the workplace over the years.

Today, women from a range of backgrounds and employment experiences say they've made advances in the working world and that harassment and overt discrimination are less common. They also feel they have more of an opportunity to succeed.

Now, Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign and Sarah Palin's selection as a vice presidential candidate have raised to the forefront issues such as the burden of child care, pay equity and allegedly sexist media coverage.

Two recent studies are highlighting ongoing challenges for women and bringing the topic of women in the workplace to the forefront.

Women -- more than men -- still bear most of the burden of child care, and a survey by Working America finds they believe the decision to have a child hurts their career far more than it affects the father's career.

"My message to women is always, you can have it all, just not at the same time," said Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and former executive director of the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women.

The second study found that the nation's economic woes are hitting women harder than men.

The employment rate for women peaked in 1999, before the dot-com bust and the eventual recovery, and has fallen steadily since, a Congressional committee recently said in the report "Equality in Job Loss."

The impact of the current sour economy is just one issue that women from a range of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and jobs addressed in recent interviews with The Buffalo News.

These women say they are treated better today by employers and co-workers, but they recalled unequal treatment, sexually oriented comments and even unwanted touching from the past.

As a teen, Bender, now head of Local 815 of the Civil Service Employees Association, wanted to be a news reporter. But the nuns at her high school told her she needed to be a nurse, a teacher or a housewife.

"That was in the '60s. I could have been Barbara Walters," Bender said. Instead, she went into hospital clerical work.

Women say there is less overt discrimination and harassment, and they feel they can report unwanted behavior and they will be supported by their companies if they do. At the GM Powertrain plant, Frank is the only woman out of 30 people working as tool technicians on the day shift.

"It's a total difference from when I started. They're very respectful to me, of me," she said.

Some women took things into their own hands. Bender, the Local 815 official, changed the hotel-room policy when she took charge of the union and gave women the option of having their own room or sharing a room.

The pay gap between the sexes has shrunk over the past 35 years, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute, but it still exists.

Some say women still suffer from the fact that men can be more adept at arguing for higher pay, and some employers still believe men should earn more as primary breadwinners.

Further, as a society, we tend to place a greater value, financially and otherwise, on the jobs and fields that men tend to choose over the ones that women tend to choose, said Susan Pinker, author of "The Sexual Paradox" and an advice columnist with Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper.

Women and men view their work differently, and some of these differences stem from how we are raised, said Mary Lee Campbell-Wisley, regional president of Univera Healthcare.

Campbell-Wisley's son recently asked her whether he should take a new position, and this got her thinking about how her parents would have answered the question very differently.

Her father, Campbell-Wisley said, would have asked, "What's your title? How much money do you make?" Her mother, however, would have asked, "Will this take time away from your children and family?"

"Those things get engrained in us," Campbell-Wisley said.

Child care remains a big issue for women, with surveys showing women still feel that they are the primary caregivers and that this can hurt their careers.

Jenny McCann, a teacher and lawyer, previously worked at a law firm where four lawyers were hired at about the same time, two men and two women. All four had had a child within six months of each other.

Within a year, the two women had been let go, in part because they weren't able to bill enough hours, said McCann, who is the mother of Alexander, 2.

Now, some women take "pink collar" or "mommy track" jobs that are full-time but offer family friendly work schedules.

"As long as child care is expensive and difficult to do, as long as it's still seen as the woman's role, that has to impact choice of job, choice of major . . . choice of lifestyle," said Nancy McGlen, a dean at Niagara University.

But more than anything else, working women don't feel they make enough money, according to the survey by Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

When asked what would make their life substantially easier, 53 percent of the respondents chose a 10 percent raise, far more than the number who would like affordable health care or child care or a pension.

The online survey of 12,000 women also found that, if they had more free time, most would work a second job.

"What this survey shows us is, working women need a raise and they need a break," said Jenn Jannon, Working America's Pennsylvania state director, who helped with the survey.

Women today are equal victims of the struggling economy, the Congressional study found.

Women during the 2001 recession lost jobs at a rate comparable to men in the fields that saw the greatest job losses, according to the July report from the Joint Economic Committee.

In fact, women's employment levels haven't returned to their pre-2001 levels.

"It now appears that, unlike in decades past, families can no longer rely on women's employment to help boost family income during a downturn," the committee report states. Still, out of personal preference or in response to conditions in the corporate world, some women have started their own firms or consulting businesses.

In 1995, Melinda Rath Sanderson was in Cleveland, working for the hotel division of Nestle USA, and she'd just had the second of her three children.

She asked her bosses for the chance to have a more flexible work schedule.

They wouldn't agree to this arrangement, so Sanderson , now executive director of the Canisius College Women's Business Center, left to open a real-estate consulting business that focused on the hotel industry.

Today, she thinks her bosses at Nestle would have decided differently.

Looking ahead, most women are optimistic that they'll see more progress and more equality when it comes to income and representation in the higher levels of the working world.

"This is a new thing. It's going to take time for these people to work through the funnel, or work through the hose, into positions of leadership," Sanderson said.


There are no comments - be the first to comment