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Empowering Women in Business

The Feminist Difference

Women have long been involved in business in the United States, although their contributions and roles have been minimized and frequently overlooked. Women "she merchants" were approximately 2% of the merchants in colonial New York City. According to historian Jean Jordan, "merchants were at the summit of the colonial economy... positions of comparable power and prestige today would be those of president or chairman of the board of major business corporations." In other words, women are only slightly more successful in reaching the highest levels of business today than they were in colonial times.

Among early 20th century feminists, the desire for career was central. A survey in 1924 found one-third of women aged 15 to 17 "would choose a career even if that necessitated giving up the possibility of marriage and a family" (Stricker, Cookbooks and Lawbooks).

In the early 1900's women were among the leaders in the newly-developing field of business management science. Lillian Gilbreth, among other women innovators in the area of behavioral management science, made substantial contributions. She co-authored The Primer of Scientific Management. But only her husband's name appears on the book because the publisher did not want a woman listed as collaborator.

Feminists Create Legal Forces for Change

Yet it was not until the beginning of the contemporary feminist movement that the legal framework to fight sex discrimination in business was created. The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, requires employers to pay men and women in the same establishment equally for work of equivalent effort performed under similar working conditions.

Introduced to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination in employment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became a vehicle for outlawing sex discrimination as well. Including women in the Civil Rights Act was proposed by a conservative Southen Congressman in a cynical effort to split the bipartisan civil rights coalition and stop passage of the bill. But Congresswoman Martha Griffiths led the fight for its passage in the House, and emerged victorious. In the Senate, the bill survived the longest filibuster in history - 83 days. As a result, Title VII also prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

But feminists could not rest easy after winning the battle in Congress. The newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Cominission responsible for enforcing Title VII refused to take the sex discrimination provisions seriously. The Martha Griffiths first chair of the EEOC was "adamant that sex discrimination had been included in the Act to bring it into disrepute and was not a genuine part" of his responsibilities. Congresswoman Martha Griffiths attacked the EEOC on the floor of the Congress, labeling its attitude toward the sex provision "specious, negative and arrogant."

Feminists Take Action Against Job Discrimination

The movement of American women into business executive ranks was largely the result of pressure from feminists on the federal government and the courts. In 1967, the National Organization for Women (NOW) began pressuring the EEOC to hold hearings on sex discrimination guidelines. To keep the pressure on, NOW picketed EEOC offices around the country, and in February 1968 filed a lawsuit to force the EEOC to "comply with its own governmental rules."

While keeping pressure on the EEOC, feminists sued under Title VII in the federal courts. Challenges by NOW and other feminist organizations were launched against sexsegregated want ads and protective labor laws. In the largest back-pay settlement reached to date, NOW, the EEOC and the NAACP challenged AT&T's rate increase request in 1973 based on 1,800 discrimination complaints outstanding against the company. Similar cases involving millions of dollars were settled against GE, Northwest Airlines, Uniroyal, and Merill Lynch.

Lobbying efforts by feminist groups extended the EEOC's powers in 1972 and 1973 to allow the commission to directly sue employers for violation of civil rights laws. Title VII was extended to cover employment in educational institutions and government agencies, and the Equal Pay Act was extended to cover professional and executive jobs. The first major settlement under the Equal Pay Act came in 1974; AT&T agreed to pay $30 million in back pay and future raises to 25,000 management employees, most of them women.

Executive Order 11246 (1965), amended in 1968 to include women, outlawed discrimination by government contractors and required positive steps to remedy the effects of past discrimination. Feminists filed complaints against 1,300 corporations receiving federal contracts.

In 1978, feminists won passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of pregnancy, following an adverse Supreme Court decision two years earlier. A federal Interagency Task Force on Women Business Owners was appointed in 1977, and in 1978 published its report "The Bottom Line: Unequal Enterprise in America." Executive Order 12138 was signed in 1979 to implement the Task Force's recommendations, including affirmative action in federal contracting.

In 1988, the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) put pressure on Congress to study the obstacles faced by women entrepreneurs. As a result, the Women's Business Ownership Act was passed and signed into law to correct long-standing discrimination against women business owners. One of the akeas addressed was access to credit. The Act also created a National Women's Business Council to advocate for women who deal with government agencies.

In addition to putting strong pressure on the EEOC and other government agencies, American feminists have sued, picketed, demonstrated, and organized to gain their rights. Women's rights groups, professional associations and women's caucuses in trade unions and religious organizations all pushed for more opportunities for women at every level of employment including management. Women's caucuses within the professions demanded the establishment of commissions to study the status of women.

Annual stockholder meetings became the place to assail management over the lack of women in its ranks and among its directors. As one executive recruiter at the time noted, "The pressure is on at big, highly visible companies to hire more women as vice presidents, project managers and staff attorneys." Settling discrimination complaints, corporations were often forced to open their management ranks to women.

Although feminists have fought to establish and vigorously enforce guidelines and laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, we remain a long way from equality in the ranks of American business. Further gains depend on getting more feminists into decision-making positions and creating new strategies for change.