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The Impact of the Feminist Movement on Women in the Workforce

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On a warm Wednesday morning, July 19th 1848, in a small town in New York, 200 women led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, joined to discuss the social, civil, religious condition, and rights of women (Seneca County Courier 1848). Unknowing of their forever impact, their minds birthed one of the most influential movements in world history, feminism. Though decades have past, such rights discussed in 1848 are still being advocated for in the 21st century. The increase of women’s rights over decades arise new issues to be fought for. One of these rights was the women’s introduction into the workplace. The largest influx of women into the workforce occurred in the 1940’s during World War II to support manufacturing, catalyzing the growth of the American economy during the war. Once women were working, feminists in this time made headway to change the norms and rights of women in the workforce. The work sector of America was powerfully influenced by the introduction of the feminist movement and widely impacted the working female populous.


Women today prove to be the most valuable asset in the growth of the American economy. If action is taken to narrow the United States (U.S.) gender gap, an economy the size of Texas could be added in less than a decade to our nation (Harvard Business Review 2016). If Texas were its own sovereign nation, it would have the tenth largest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world at $1.64 trillion. In 2010, women made up 47% of the work force (United States Department of Labor 2010) and ever since, it has been continuously increasing. Although women are beginning to make up the majority of the workforce, women only make 80 cents to every dollar a man makes (IWPR 2016).


Women in the U.S continue to see the effects of the wage gap in their daily lives, and with future impacts as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports the cost of raising a child for a middle-income family in the U.S. is approximately $245,340 (USDA 2014), and when women are seeing a gap that makes up for a $10,470 difference a year from men (National Women’s Law Center 2016), it becomes difficult to provide for that child. Moreover, providing more economic support to women by providing equal pay would take 2.5 million working mothers out of poverty. In the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) on “The Impact of Equal Pay on the United States Economy”, it is stated that poverty rates would drop from 10.4% to 4.4%, due to equal pay (IWPR 2017). For working women in low income communities, potentially earning equal pay to men could lead to better lives for their children, and take millions of families out of poverty, which the feminist movement strives to do.


The immense wage gap leads to a deterrence for women to enter the workforce, lowering their incentive to work. Raising the female labor force participation rate to country-specific male levels, which is 88% in the U.S., would, raise GDP by 5% (IMF 2013).  According to the McKinsey Global Institute, two factors drive GDP growth—an expanding workforce and rising productivity. In the 1970’s when women largely began entering the workforce for full time jobs, 65% of GDP growth arose from workforce expansion. Today, nearly 80% of growth is related to productivity increases (McKinsey Global Institute 2011).  This increase in productivity can be seen throughout the 20th century, and is most observable at times where feminism became most important within society to empower women into the workforce. During WWII with the introduction of Rosie the Riveter into American society, a new wave of feminism began, the second major movement the U.S had seen since the advocacy of the suffragist movement, led by the International Council of Women. With her iconic slogan “We Can Do It” (Miller 1942), women were being empowered by society, are seen as equal to men in the workforce, and rush to support the nation while their husbands are serving overseas in WWII. Observed by the influx of women into the workforce in the 1940’s, women today still make advancements in the workforce, pursuing the improvement of the American economy, due to the aggrandizement of women from the feminist movement. In the 1970’s with an influx of women into the workforce, and advocacy for feminism at a high, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) had been passed at this time, resulting in large support for women. The workforce during the time of the ERA had one of the largest populations of women since WWII, and changes to the laws of women’s treatment in the workplace changed with the progression of women in society. The ERA, passed in 1972, but present on the floor of congress in every session since 1923, bans discrimination based on gender, improving the lives of women inside and out of the workplace by striving to eliminate gender bias.


In today’s world, feminist thought has the potential to make a huge impact; it redefines politics and questions the basic assumptions upon which power is based (Smith 2007). In 1916, Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, was the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, a miraculous feat, as at the time of her election many women were not allowed to vote. The House of Representatives is comprised of 435 members, with only 19.3%, or 84 of these members being women (Rutgers 2015), a small increase since 1916. According to Kathleen Dolan, Ph.D in Political Behaviour aswell a professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies at University of Milwaukee, there is “a sort of political glass ceiling for women in our system” (Dolan 28), accounting for what is a clear disparity between men and women in politics today. Even with a clear imbalance between men and women, increasing the amount of women in politics could only benefit the U.S.. According to Vicky Randall and Georgina Waylen, esteemed professors, feminists, lecturers in Political Science, and coauthors of the book Gender, Politics and the State, increased female participation in Latin America linked to quotas that has led to very significant progress on divorce, child custody and domestic violence legislation (Randall Waylen 1998). Within the U.S., an increase in preventative legislation is vital as domestic violence can follow victims to work, spilling over into the workplace when a victim is harassed, receives threatening phone calls, is absent because of injuries, or is less productive due to extreme stress (National Center for Victims of Crime 1999). An accretion of women in government today would only help the working female populous, but as well the safety of American citizens in a significant way. Feminist advocates today push for more women in office, as it was seen in the Women’s March of 2017, that organizations such as Planned Parenthood encouraged women to run for office to help improve women’s rights inside, and outside of the workplace.


Women while currently not seeing large advancements in politics, are not seeing advancements in many fields, being bypassed for promotions due to their gender. In 2006 Francine Blau and Jed DeVaro, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, found in their study entitled New Evidence on Gender Differences in Promotion Rates: an Empirical Analysis of a Sample New Hires, 10.6% of men received promotions versus 7.6% of women, a statistically significant gap in promotion rates favoring men (National Bureau of Economic Research 2006). In 2016 there were only 27 women CEO’s of S&P 500 companies, an increase of only three from the past year. The clear quantitative contrast of leadership roles between men and women within the U.S., displaying the clear disparity in the gender populous produced by large companies. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently filed a lawsuit against Country Fresh, a division of Dean Foods, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for sexual discrimination of an employee (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2016) . The anonymous employee had worked at the company for years, but never escalated on the corporate hierarchy, and ignored as she saw her male co-workers receive promotions. EEOC trial Attorney Nedra Campbell stated that “failing to promote a qualified female employee because of her sex violates federal law and is completely unacceptable” (IBID). The EEOC tries a multitudinous amount of companies per year for discrimination based on gender, but yet these incidences continues to occur, and go unnoticed.


In the 1960’s women predominantly took the roles of housewives, secretaries, and teachers as to not break social mores. Women still pursued the fields of STEM, but only made up 6% of doctors in the U.S. at this time (Tavaana 2015), and had greater aspirations for the advancement of women in the mind of society. As Betty Friedan, American writer, activist, and feminist, wrote in her book, The Feminine Mystique, women wanted to be more than “a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something” (Friedan 1963). The feminist movement of this time, while focused on women in the workplace, saw a catalyst in the fight for equality when their influence pushed Democrat Howard Smith to add a prohibition on gender discrimination into the Civil Rights Act that was under consideration (Tavaana 2015). Though laughed at by Congress, he continued to see support by leaders of the feminist movement and leaders of congress such as Martha Griffiths of Michigan. Continued support from the feminist movement successfully made the way for the passing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision. The passing of this law lead to elephantine success even after and feminists such as Betty Friedan launched the National Organization for Women, which went on to lobby Congress for pro-equality laws and assist women seeking legal aid as they battled workplace discrimination in the courts (IBID).


Even though women continue to rise as leaders within today’s modern society, men are still seen as superior which renders the question; why? Opposers to the feminist theory believe that men continue to make more conclusive and decisive decisions, in contrast to women who input emotions into their decisions. The Indian Journal of Psychology states that the prefrontal cortex is often classified as multimodal association cortex carrying out executive processes (Indian Journal of Psychology 2008). According to Walter Van Den Broek, doctor at the Institute of Medical Education Research Rotterdam states executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, and future consequences of current activities (Broek 2016). Research from the University of Cambridge shows that one region of the prefrontal cortex, commonly referred to as the left frontal pole or Brodmann area 10, is critical in decision making, and is larger in volume in women than in males (Ruigrok 2014). The left frontal lobe controls decision making based on internal opinions and external cues, and is one of the most developed parts of the brain in primates (Koechlin 2011). Women showing with larger and more developed frontal lobes showing their innate capability to make smarter, and more informed decisions than men, which can even be seen within different conditions. Women are also seen to make better decisions under stress as, Ruud van den Bos, a neurobiologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands researched that the tendency to take more risks when under pressure is stronger in men, but in women he found stress seemed actually to improve decision-making performance (Huston 2014). Humans make on average 35,000 decisions per day, though women’s decisions may be less respected within society, they are scientifically the best.


In 1971, Richard Nixon posed the question to our nation “What must we do, as a nation, to deserve a generation of peace?” (Nixon, 1971). During 1971, the time of the Vietnam War, Nixon questioned international peace, but today we question domestic societal peace and the initiative for equality. The clear inequality our society faces between men and women cannot simply be stopped. It is a bias that lies within each person nurtured by the ideologies that a person grows up with, and peace cannot be attained this way. Equality, and rights in the workplace for women must first be attained on the corporate level. Companies must develop programs that train women for advanced business management positions. According to Kathy Caprino, TEDx keynote speaker on women in the workplace, a reason that women are not becoming corporate leaders, is that they are different than the leadership norm, and are considered less capable than men in business (Caprino 2016). Fostering a workplace community where it is possible that women can rise to primary leadership positions is of the highest importance. Feminism today currently pushes for these improvements of the American workplace, and the advocacy for more women leaders. Organizations such as the Feminist Majority Foundation work for the progression of women in management positions with conferences with other activist groups and meetings with congressmen, and women, about action to be taken to achieve equality in the workplace for women. Though feminism still works to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling in the corporate world, it is inconceivable that many of the highest ceilings such as President of the U.S., or Secretary of the United Nations, will be broken simply through action.


Anonymous once said “nevertheless she persisted”, which perfectly encaptures the spirit of the feminist movement. With the progression that the feminist movement provides, women will continue to persist in the workplace and see vast improvements for generations to come.






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