From My Perspective – Women in the Workplace

Women now earn six out of every ten university degrees. Yet, according to Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine (October 26, 2003), the workplace has failed women and women are “rejecting the workplace.” In the U.S., it is estimated that between a quarter and a third of professional women are not in the workforce, and a further “two-thirds of 25-44 year olds work less than 40 hours a week.” In Canada the story is similar, with nearly a “fifth of 25-44 year old women with university degrees” unemployed; with women over 45 rising to a third. When women do work, it is often part time, with one in five Canadian women between 25-44 working part time, compared to one in twenty men.

Although women represent a much higher number of those graduating from university, this is not yet reflected in the workplace. There are still huge disparities in the workforce. Although women comprise 46 percent of all workers and half of all professional jobs, they still earn less than men and hold fewer senior jobs. Women hold only a third of management jobs, and within the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics, that rate falls to one in five. Wage comparisons of university educated men and women show women earning $48,000 to men at $72,000. Eighty percent of wage earners over $100,000 a year are still men.

One problem identified by many women is that women are still taking disproportionate responsibility for family and child-rearing tasks, making it extremely difficult for a professional woman to keep up with the demanding hours and workload expected of top executives who want to move to the top of the ladder. A double standard continues, with men being perceived as “stable, reliable, dependable” while women are the ones who will leave work to care for sick kids. Some studies have found that women in the workplace put in an additional 40 hours a week in unpaid family-related work compared to 20 hours for men – the “classic second shift”, working full-time at home as well as outside.

These family responsibilities mean women continue to find it difficult to climb the corporate ladder. In addition, many women report that they take a different viewpoint of success, considering a personal identity apart from a career as being of greater importance than the career itself. They are choosing to take time off to devote to raising their family, trying to find a more acceptable balance between the two.

According to some, change will be inevitable. David Mitchell of the University of Ottawa believes that as women increasingly earn greater percentages of university degrees, they will overtake men in the professional workforce. Women will assume their “rightful place in the workplace hierarchy”, simply because of sheer numbers.

It is also of interest to note that it is becoming culturally more acceptable for men to take time off from their careers to raise children. In Canada parental leave benefits were increased to 35 weeks in December, 2000, resulting in an immediate tripling of the number of fathers receiving parental benefits to 10 percent overall. By December 2002, that number had become five times greater (Butler, 2004).

Perhaps change is inevitable, but I believe it will still be a long time in coming. The statistics of men taking parental leave to help raise infants may seem impressive, but it still represents a small fraction of the total. Women continue to take the primary burden of raising the family, and this is being reflected in their ability to move ahead in the corporate and professional world.

I’m not an advocate of women pursuing a career instead of raising a family. I believe that bringing up children is the single most important and fulfilling career any woman (or man) can ever engage in. However, I do believe that women deserve to have choices. If they have the equivalent education and ability, they should be able to have an equal place with men in the workplace. Sadly, the woman who chooses to place her children and family first is still viewed by too many as having chosen the less important task, and her opportunities to advance professionally are hampered accordingly.

Don Butler, CanWest News Service, Ottawa. Skilled women reject workaholism: Women’s identities not tied to their careers, but many workplaces demand it. Edmonton Journal, February 14, 2004.
The Second Shift, A. Hochschild & A. Machung (2003), Avon Books.
Belkin, L. New York Times Magazine. The Opt Out Revolution. October 26, 2003