Doors keep opening wider for women in career world

March 19, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

Pick one: Teacher, nurse or secretary.

Once upon a not-so-long ago time those were the most common career choices for women.

Those days are over, but that does not mean women are being treated equally in the work force, a Shepherd University sociology professor said.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and affirmative action programs helped open career doors to women, along with lifestyle and family changes women have made and continue to make. Women often need to earn an income because they are staying single longer, the divorce rate has increased and some single women choose to have children and need to provide for them, said Shepherd professor Margie Kiter Edwards.

Economics and the bottom line also played a part.

In the 1980s, executives with private companies realized they were not tapping into a pool of talented, prospective employees who happened to be women, Edwards said.


She said that today, women are doctors and lawyers - more women than men are enrolling in law school - but often do not specialize in higher-paid areas. For example, fewer women practice criminal, corporate or tax law, while women physicians tend to specialize in gynecology, pediatrics or family medicine rather than working as surgeons, Edwards said.

Women who choose to make careers in traditionally female-oriented fields, such as teaching and social work, often find the salaries are low, she said.

Salaries in those fields might be low because such jobs are seen as an extension of the motherly, housewife role, even though those jobs almost always require a college degree, Edwards said.

A solution, she said, is to establish a nationwide salary scale based on objective factors such as educational requirements and working conditions.

She admitted that could be difficult.

Women who did venture years ago into a male-dominated field tend have stories of disparagement to share.

Ginny Neisser, 62, now manages a shop in Valley Mall but previously worked in the field of banking. At the time it employed mostly men.

That her male co-workers made more money than she did for - in theory - doing the same job was a source of irritation.

"I was working harder than what they were lots of times," Neisser said.

Harassment can be subtle

Balancing work and family was supposed to be more manageable with the Family Medical and Leave Act, but with it came concerns for women.

The law allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks off to care for a new child or for an ill spouse, child or parent.

If an employer is adverse to the law, an employee might feel guilty asking for such time off and might, out of guilt, work from home. At the same time they are dealing with the stress of caring for a new child or ill family member, Edwards said.

When the employee returns she (or he - the law is as applicable to men as it is to women) might be passed over for a promotion or otherwise slighted because time off was taken.

It's one example of a law that set a foundation for equality but that can be usurped by individuals in power opposed to women's rights, Edwards said.

Sometimes discrimination is sexual - physically harassing a female employee or referring to her as "honey" or "babe" - but sometimes it's more subtle, she said.

An employer who "forgets" to invite a female employee to a meeting and later claims he simply did not want to bother her is discriminating because the female employee was not allowed to weigh in on the issues being discussed at the meeting, Edwards said.

An accumulation of such slights, she said, can cause women to leave their jobs, even those who receive salaries equitable to their male co-workers.

According to Edwards, such subtle, pervasive discrimination is harder to address and women who complain might be accused of exaggerating.

"We're losing talented women who do good work for these ridiculous types of behavior," Edwards said.

Women as business owners

One area where women are making strides is in entrepreneurship.

"Women are opening up the majority of small businesses," said Christina Lundberg, manager of the Small Business Development Center at The Community and Technical College of Shepherd in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"If it wasn't for your small businesses you wouldn't have any economic growth," Lundberg said.

Nationwide nearly 6.5 million businesses are owned by women, employing more than 7.1 million people and contributing $940.8 billion in revenue to the economy, according to U.S. Census 2002 figures.

The number of women-owned businesses increased 20 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to Census figures.

-- Maryland has 17,948 women-owned businesses with paid employees, with 564 of them in Washington County.

-- West Virginia has 4,543 women-owned businesses with paid employees, with 169 in Berkeley County and 185 in Jefferson County.

-- Pennsylvania has 34,626 such businesses, with 300 of them in Franklin County.

California leads the way with 115,735 women-owned businesses, followed by New York (65,277) and Texas (63,312).

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