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Women In The Workplace Still Face Inequality

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A generation ago, a vocal women's movement argued there was no reason they couldn't have it all: fulfilling careers, rich family lives, prominent roles in politics and business - most of all, the freedom to make their own choices. A special report in this week's Time magazine finds that American women have made huge strides in the workplace since those days. By year's end, for example, women will make up more than half the workforce. That persistent wage gap is still there, but it's closed significantly. And Time's poll found more than three quarters of adults say that's good for both society and the economy.

But balancing the demands of the workplace with a family remains a serious problem and interestingly, both men and women say their employers have not done enough to accommodate a world where 70 percent of American families have a working mom. So employers, we want to hear from you today. How has the growing number of women in the workplace changed the work environment, and what have you done to accommodate working parents? Tell us your story. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's 50 Great Voices project. You can send us an email with your nominee. The address again, talk@npr.org. But first, women, families and the workplace, and we begin with Nancy Gibbs, editor-at-large for Time and a contributor to Time's special report, "The State of the American Woman." She joins us from the studios of Time in New York City. Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. NANCY GIBBS (Editor-at-Large, Time Magazine): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And when it comes to women, work and family, what's surprised you in these findings?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, I was surprised that after at least a generation of having this argument about, you know, the battle of the sexes and women's place and where is it, that both men and women essentially say, that's over. It's not where people's heads are. When you ask people, do you think that men lost the battle of the sexes, a majority of both say no. But that doesn't mean they think women lost it, either. It means they just think we have more important things to do and talk about now.

CONAN: And it was interesting that both men and women argue that there has not -being done enough by employers to accommodate both men and women who have to deal with their families.

Ms. GIBBS: That's right. And you know, issues that have been framed perhaps falsely but persistently as women's issues up until now - issues like child care and paid family leave and elder care - across the board, we found that men and women alike, by large majorities, felt that institutions, whether government or their employers and the private sector, have not adjusted to these fundamental changes in the American family.

CONAN: Things like flexible hours, more time off. More - specifically, more paid time off.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, the thing - flexibility really was the watch word again and again, of what - you know, when we asked people what it is that you most need in order to be able to make this balance work, that the appeal of flexibility so that people can juggle. You can't predict when a crisis might hit your family, whether it's with an elderly parent or with your children. And being trusted to be able to get your work done, but perhaps have your hours - have to be more flexible is something that workers across the board really crave.

CONAN: My favorite was when these schools would cancel suddenly at 10 o'clock and send the kids home.

Ms. GIBBS: And of course, who is supposed to be at home to receive them?

CONAN: Exactly, if both parents are working. And that seems to be the environment that most families are in these days, and these studies are fascinating. Men - or 71 percent of men say they're comfortable - more comfortable than their fathers with women working outside their home. Eighty percent of men and women are comfortable with the idea that the female partner earns more than the man. But the fact is in many cases, maybe in most cases, both are working outside the home, and flexibility's paramount.

Ms. GIBBS: That's right. And the one thing I thought was very striking was that when we asked people what do you think is best for children, therestill are very traditional views about what children need. And a majority of both men and women said that the fact that a generation ago, a majority of kids were being raised by a parent at home and now that number is below 30 percent, that that is a bad thing, that that's bad for children. And so you would think that these two things are contradictory, if it's good that more women are working, but it's bad that more children are not being raised by a stay-at-home parent. But I think that really does point to this sense that particularly employers have not made it more possible for families to manage these competing demands and competing pressures more easily.

CONAN: And we say the word employers as if it's some sort of, you know, as if they're not people, too. Of course they are. They have, probably, kids at home as well. And they're in the same situation. Nevertheless, they're under a lot of economic pressures, too.

Ms. GIBBS: I think that's right. And of course, you know, it varies widely across different sectors of the economy, and there are some - there are large corporations that have made tremendous advances in figuring out how to accommodate the needs of working families - not necessarily out of, you know, great corporate benevolence but out of self-interest, that as a way of winning and retaining top talent, that having a workplace that is viewed as being family friendly and flexible is a very attractive quality for many companies.

CONAN: And we want to hear especially from employers today, but other people who work of a living, too. What has happened in your workplace to accommodate working mothers and fathers? And, well, have you done enough, employers? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

We'll turn next to Gail Collins, an author and a columnist for The New York Times. Her new book is called "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." It came out earlier this month. And she joins us from our bureau in New York. Good of you to be with us today.

Ms. GAIL COLLINS (Author; Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

CONAN: And you chart the amazing progress that American women have made, or they're making change, in any case - I think most would say it's progress - in the last 50 years, in just 50 years. But one of the interesting findings of this study is that well, yeah, it's progress and it's important that women go out in the workforce, but women say they're not as happy.

Ms. COLLINS: Well, you know, part of that is I remember Ellen, the great columnist Ellen Goodman, saying years and years ago that, you know, in the '70s, that she found that all of her women friends were happy and her men friends were all miserable because her men friends grew up thinking they wanted to be president of the United States, and they wound up just being a professor at a college. And their - her women friends thought that they would just become housewives, and they wound up being professors at a college.

CONAN: At a college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: So the women were really happy. And I think, truly, a lot of the unhappiness is not grief or misery so much as just the feeling of either trying to meet expectations for themselves that are so high, or just trying to get everything done that they want to do. There's a richness in life that I think should be celebrated but boy, are people hassled and harassed these days.

CONAN: And by that gap, we're talking about the difficulty of juggling the job and the family.

Ms. COLLINS: Absolutely.

CONAN: It was fascinating to me the speed with which you commented this happened. There's a great quote from you in the Time article that said: It happened so quickly, neither side had time to go to the barricades.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: We might have worked it out entirely differently if there had been a plan, but no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It is remarkable, when you think about it. Was there a turning point, do you think?

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, there - but in the mid to late '60s and early '70s, everything literally changed, almost overnight. It was just stunning. Within a decade, things that people had thought for a million years about women and the way they were just ended over - almost overnight. And it was a combination of, on the one hand, the birth control pill arrived. The civil rights movement arrived, which made us very sensitive to unfairness in any way, shape or form. And the economy changed. And that was probably the most important of all. The economy needed more women workers. There weren't enough men. Women could do the job, sometimes even better than men that were coming on the line. And the American family after World War II had gotten used to a lifestyle that they were certainly not prepared to give up, yet after - when the '70s kicked in and the economy faltered, it no longer became possible to support it with one person's income.

CONAN: So almost 40 years ago, that change happened. A lot of workplaces have yet to accommodate to it. How has your workplace changed to accommodate the larger number of women? And employers, have you done enough? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Richard on the line from St. Louis.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. I have to admit that at the beginning, working in architecture, the women who came to the profession were wide-eyed and very optimistic about being shown as equals in a meritocracy to their male counterparts. And I have to admit - and I don't want to say which firm I'm working with - but we took advantage of that, and we paid them lower wages, and they were happy with this.

Now, it's repugnant because we look at now as a meritocracy. But one of the things that showed up for me - and I think was hinted at in your conversation -was that the paradigm through which men had worked in the workplace was a bankrupt paradigm already. And when you talk about the war of the sexes, you're right, there was no time for anybody to man any barricades.

What's really occurred is that women have acceded to the paradigm men had, which was spending less time with your family, coming home tired and not even having the energy to complete the necessary tasks, and really missing out on the very essence of what family and what culture is about for the sake of a buck.

And so, you know, I want to end with saying that the women have shown themselves, in many cases, to be far more excellent in the job than the men, more detail-oriented and full of integrity in a way that, I hate to say, I did not see in the hires and my peers, and I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: Well, Richard, what time period was this when you were hiring women for significantly less?

RICHARD: It started in the '70s, and it has gone to the present.

CONAN: To the present?

RICHARD: To the present. And women are still not earning, dollar for dollar, what men are.

CONAN: And if they start out at a lower salary, of course, even if they stay for 30 years, they're still going to be earning less.

RICHARD: The unfortunate truth.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much. I appreciate your candor, Richard.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: I'm not sure I want to work for you, but I appreciate your candor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think that situation, Nancy Gibbs, that he describes is, well, I'm not sure it applies so much today - at least I hope not.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, there certainly was a time when it was perfectly common for employers to flatly, you know, admit to women that they were paying them less because they - the assumption that a woman who was working was just, you know, sort of earning pocket money. And now you have 40 percent of women as primary breadwinners in their homes, and particularly in the past year in this recession, more and more households are more and more dependent on the income that women are bringing in. And so for women to be underpaid for, you know, whatever their labor is, is not something just that punishes them. It punishes the entire family.

CONAN: Interesting, too, that within that family dynamic, huge percentages of women are described as either the account or the financial manager. They take care of the money, no matter who brings it in.

We're talking about the American workplace and the role of women there. We want to hear from you. Employees, employers, how has the growing number of women in the workplace changed the work environment? And employers, what have you done to accommodate working parents? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Look at the American workplace, and you'll see a mightily different gender makeup than perhaps your parents did. It's expected that by the end of this year, for the first time in history, the majority of workers in the U.S. will be women. And as the wage gap closes a little, according to a poll conducted by Time magazine, 89 percent of both men and women are comfortable with the notion of a family in which a woman earns more than a man.

We're talking with Nancy Gibbs today - she's editor-at-large for Time magazine - and with Gail Collins. Her most recent book was published this month, called "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present."

How has the growing number of women in the workplace changed your work environment - and employers, what have you done to accommodate working parents? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's get George on the line, George calling us from Mason City in Iowa.

GEORGE (Caller): Hello. Actually, I am female, even though I do have a male first name.

CONAN: George can be applied to women, too, and certainly is in this case. Go ahead, please.

GEORGE: There you go. Actually, I wanted to just address the author of the Time article, which I read yesterday and set aside for a class that I'm leading a discussion in on generations. And I noticed with particular interest when the 45-and-under group is broken out from the larger just sort of women, and I'm curious whether the author has read "Generations" by Strauss and Howe and how that played into - whether it played into the questions they were asking.

CONAN: Nancy Gibbs? Hold on, we'll get your mic up.

Ms. GIBBS: Oh.

CONAN: Go ahead, Nancy.

Ms. GIBBS: I said, I know Neil Howe has a lot of very interesting ideas about how generations identify themselves, and it was one of the things that really struck me in our poll - was that whatever attitudes we were seeing across the board, we saw more intensely among younger people.

So for instance, if a majority of men and women are very comfortable with women being fully present in the workplace, people 18 to 29 are the most enthusiastic about that. If people feel that they're experiencing more frequent stress in their daily life, we found much higher stress levels among younger workers than among, say, people who were 55 and older.

So there were - there were almost, on some questions, more significant differences between younger people and older people than there were between men and women, which I think speaks to what Gail has so wonderfully laid out in her book, is that over this generation, so much has change so quickly that today's young men and women have very different assumptions and expectations than their parents did.

CONAN: And Gail Collins, that suggests it's going to accelerate.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah. And it also suggests, I think, that some of the things that older people thought as defeats, you know, that if you're not - if you give up, say if you're a woman and you decide that you can and want to stay home for a while, there's - my generation tended to think of that as sort of giving it up for the girls and you're not really holding on to the sexual banner the way you should. And those things don't exist anymore for younger women. I mean, they just presume that they're going to work and that if they don't, it's just them. It's not some cosmic thing going on.

GEORGE: It's interesting that you mention that, because I do remember when I was in college having a college professor tell my generation - I graduated in '88 - that we were letting down the sisterhood, that we didn't know how far we had been brought, and we were squandering our opportunities. Mind you, this is at Yale.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GEORGE: But…

CONAN: Standing on the shoulder straps of giants?

Ms. GIBBS: Those Yale squanderers; we hate that.

GEORGE: Well, you know, here I am, a stay-at-home mom, and don't think it doesn't sometimes grate for me. But I guess what I worry about is that I may be raising my children more conservative. Strauss and Howe discuss sort of an 80-year cycle, and that we may be moving into a more conservative, narrower, gender-role era. And I'm…

CONAN: Does the data show that, Nancy Gibbs?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, you know, I think that maybe the shock of this year and the economy, whatever trend lines might have been in place, everything got blown up when the world as we knew it came to end this time a year ago, And so whatever - yes, you know, social attitudes and economic attitudes are so intertwined, but even if there were an inclination towards a more conservative view of gender roles - and our poll found, as I mentioned, you know, the persistent, very traditional ideas.

Like when we asked people what was most important for - of what they wanted for their daughters, large majorities ranked first that she have a happy marriage and children, far more than said either an interesting career or financial success. And again, this was both men and women.

And so while these - there are, you know, persistent - sort of traditional, conservative, however we want to frame them, attitudes, the reality of this economy is that putting food on the table and being able to provide for your family is going to be, you know, so front and center in the decisions people are making. I think it's - in some ways, having, you know, very old-fashioned attitudes about the division of labor is a luxury that very few families could afford, anyway.

CONAN: George, thanks very much.

GEORGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Mike, Mike with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MIKE: I'm wondering why we don't see more women in the skilled-trades area. We have a company and we have female managers, which seem to be more attentive to detail and actually do a better job, and I'd kind of like to see more of that in our field personnel. But when we apply, there's just no applicants.

CONAN: Gail Collins, there are some jobs that are - women do apply for in large numbers, and some they don't.

Ms. COLLINS: There are, but you know, when this - often I find that the kinds of jobs that women don't apply for are the kinds of jobs that have very long-standing, barnacle-like encrusted levels of history: things that are unionized, that people tend in families to do over and over again, that fathers do and then their sons do - really, really hard for women to break into. And that may not be in all parts of the country, but it really has been - there are very long, hard, painful stories about women trying to go into, say, construction trades and not being welcomed much. So although it is changing, it's been a really tough hoe for them.

CONAN: Mike, it sounds like you would welcome more women.

MIKE: We certainly would.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tina, Tina with us from Savannah.

TINA (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TINA: Just a quick observation, and I'll leave you guys to comment. I'm 37, have been in the human resources and staffing industry for about 16 years now. And interestingly, in my experience, I have found my male employers to be much more accommodating and tolerant than my female employers. And again, this just may be particular in my case, but those female employers had chosen career over family. And you know, there seemed to be some sense of resentment against my wanting to have it all. So I'll leave that to you guys to discuss.

CONAN: All right, Tina, thanks very much.

TINA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Gail - excuse me, Nancy, I don't think that's an uncommon perception.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, we asked people about that, and one of the interesting places where we did find a difference in the responses between men and women was when we asked: Are female bosses harder to work for? And only 29 percent of men said that they were. Forty-five percent of women thought that women were harder to work for.

CONAN: And she attributed that to some resentment of women who were not perhaps as career-motivated as they had been, the managers.

Ms. GIBBS: You know, I'd be reluctant to generalize and since, you know, over the course of your career, you know, any of us has such a narrow sample to draw conclusions from. But it was - you know, when we asked this across the board, that was one of the biggest differences.

One of the other biggest differences between men and women was we asked: Do you think men resent powerful women? And only 49 percent of men admitted to resenting powerful women. Sixty-nine percent of women think that men resent powerful women.

CONAN: Ah-ha, interesting. Here's an email from Reyna(ph). I don't really think the employer is at the heart of this issue. Parents think it's bad that more kids are being cared for by people other than mom and dad, yet they continue to live a lifestyle that requires two working parents to fund it. Americans' robust appetite for goods and services is driving this problem.

I've worked for 20-plus years for the same employer, and I'm out now because I chose to spend less, have less money but more freedom to spend with my family. I'm not interested anymore with being - keeping up with the Joneses or even keeping up with them, for that matter. And Gail Collins, this lifestyle issue that, well, people want to maintain the nice house and the two cars.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, but - and the lifestyle issue, I mean, the biggest cost, the huge, two big-ticket items in the lifestyle are a house and college education for the kids. And those are humongous, and you don't - it's very hard to do those.

You know, we had a story in the Times some time ago about Yale women - again, Yale women - saying they'd like to stay home with their kids. And one of the guys on the editorial board who was young, who was in his early 30s, wrote a thing for us saying, excuse me, young women, on behalf of the young men…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: …we haven't been polled on this, and I'm not sure that we could manage this. It's very, very hard to maintain a house that has sort of middle-class standards, as we think of them. And I'm not sure that it means that you're kind of wildly spending money on nights out at the opera, or whatever - just those basic things people have come to think of as critical to family life are very, very expensive.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jim. Jim with us from Spencer, Iowa.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. When I first started - started hiring women on my construction crew, we experienced something that the guys couldn't get away with - or the ambulances.

(Soundbite of traffic)

JIM: They insisted on a lot safer working conditions. And you know, if the guys were complaining about no hardhat or no railing or no guidelines, you know, then they would just be fired or told to get off the job. And I think even OSHA, I think, has come about as a result of certain members of the workforce who insisted that, you know, things just weren't safe anymore, or not safe enough.

CONAN: And that sounds like a good thing for everybody.

JIM: I - absolutely.

CONAN: And you have - hire women now in the construction trade?

JIM: I've been hiring women in my business for the last several years. I don't have any right now. You know, it just depends on, you know, how hard they want to pull because, you know, originally, the guys would help out when the fairer sex was struggling a little, and sometimes the women would actually refuse to do certain things that, you know, equal-pay individuals on the force didn't grumble about. So, you know, they got the benefit of the doubt there.

CONAN: You're talking about situations that require basically more strength?

JIM: More strength, sometimes longer hours. And the interesting - you know, those were the members that were insisting on demands for higher rates of pay a lot more often than the guys would. But I don't fault them for that.

CONAN: OK. All right, Jim. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go to another caller. This is Gary. Gary with us from Boston, Massachusetts.

GARY (Caller): Hi. I've been in (unintelligible) high tech, and one of my experiences was that so many women had heard people give lip service to these issues that they were kind of skeptical of me, especially since I was an older guy - that I was actually going to, you know, follow through with it. I was a new manager and one of my staff came back - I hadn't met her yet - from a six-month maternity leave with twins.

CONAN: Hmm.

GARY: And she had a 4-year-old. So I said look, you're a valuable part of this team. Everyone says you really do the job. But I realize you and your husband have new responsibilities at home. So if you need flex time or work-at-home, or there's an emergency at the (unintelligible), we'll find a way to work around it because we really want to have you here and wholehearted. And she gave me sort of a skeptical thank you, and I realized I had to do something to convince her I wasn't one of those jerks.

So I said something outrageous. I said, but after all, if you really want to be a professional, either you have to be a man or not have any kids. And she took that for beat and looked me in the eye and said, you mean the company would pay for a sex change operation for me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARY: So I stammered something about - don't you want to talk this over with your husband, after all? And she said, no, it's my body. And I realized, after having twins, it might have been a real consideration for her.

CONAN: And how has this worked out, Gary?

GARY: Well, it worked out well. Whenever she did need time off or when - she said - when she was going to have something done by a certain time, she did. So there was never any problem, and I knew there wouldn't be any problem. My manager, on the other hand, said, you've got to threaten your staff to make sure they're working to capacity. And I said, I never do that. They all want to do a good job. And it was a sort of like a theory X managing and the theory Y managing.

I knew these guys were professionals regardless of the agenda and I knew they were going to do a good job without my being anything but supportive.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much.

GARY: OK.

CONAN: We're talking with Nancy Gibbs at Time magazine and Gail Collins, whose new book is called "When Everything Changed."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And at least according to your survey, Nancy Gibbs, managers like that are, well, not as common as they ought to be.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, certainly, I think in our dreams we would all have employers who were eager to be that accommodating. But it also is a reality that if you were in a profession that just requires workers to physically be present, whether it's on the shift at the hospital or behind the counter in a store, where flexibility isn't really an option - the job has to be done over a certain period of hours and working from home - or sort of making up your hours and promising, I will get my work done, isn't an option; that makes for a real challenge, especially for small business employers who, you know, who can't close their shop because, you know, a worker has a family crisis. And so I'm not suggesting that any of this is particularly easy, either for employers or for their workers, but certainly the sense that families have - and again, particularly younger families and particularly in this economy - that the tools are not in their hands to make this work.

No matter how hard they try, no matter how much effort they put in, they can't make all the pieces fit together, and that this is causing real stress on them. That is something that we heard over and over and over again.

CONAN: Well, let's get one last caller in. This is Lenore, Lenore with us from Lafayette in Colorado.

LENORE (Caller): Hi, yes. Well, briefly, my husband and I both are MIT graduates. We've both been in engineering for 20-plus years, and I can tell you that I've always been paid less than my male counterparts from the get-go -every different industry I've been in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENORE: In fact, one company I worked for had a book where we could all go and - it was in the HR department; it was a small company - everybody could go and find out how much everybody was being paid. And it was a little bit of an eye-opener.

CONAN: Yeah. What did you do about it?

LENORE: You know, nothing really, in that particular case. My hours were flexible enough. I knew I couldn't get that much anywhere else. I was just starting a family. It was a good opportunity for me, and the money wasn't the issue. Money isn't always the issue, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Right. Right. Not always. But it…

LENORE: But, you know…

CONAN: …I could - it still grates; I can hear it.

LENORE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENORE: And after 20 - you know, after 20-plus years, my husband and I - my husband - you know, I was laid off three years ago and I've been a stay-at-home mom and started my own business - love it. I'm so glad I'm not working for anybody else anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENORE: You know, at that point, my husband was making 30 percent more than I was.

CONAN: And graduated the same year.

LENORE: Well, close.

CONAN: Close enough. Close enough.

LENORE: Close enough that it was, you know, we kept track of it, and we're both amazed.

CONAN: Well, Lenore, good luck as self-employed.

LENORE: Oh, I'm loving it.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for phone call. And that wage gap that she describes does still exist, though it is closing somewhat.

Nancy Gibbs, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. GIBBS: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Nancy Gibbs is editor-at-large at Time magazine. She's written more than a hundred cover stories, and joins us today from that magazine's studio in New York City. And our thanks as well to Gail Collins, who joined us from our bureau in New York. Her new book is "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." Good luck with the book.

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, Eartha Kitt's purr, Johnny Cash's smooth growl, Judy Garland's tender vibrato. NPR wants to know the 50 greatest voices. Stay with us; it's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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