This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which initially outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin — but not on the basis of gender. The word “sex” was added to the act as a last-minute amendment by a senator who opposed racial integration and may have hoped to thereby kill the bill entirely. Even after the law passed, few people expected the prohibition of gender discrimination to be enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the group charged with implementing the act.
Sure enough, the EEOC immediately outlawed race-segregated employment ads, but refused to do the same for gender-segregated ads. The head of the EEOC announced that the amendment banning sex discrimination was “a fluke,” not to be taken seriously. The National Organization for Women and other groups spent the next 20 years struggling to get the anti-discrimination provisions of the act applied to women.
Not until 1973 did the Supreme Court rule that it was illegal to divide employment ads into “Help Wanted: Female” and “Help Wanted: Male.” Only in 1974, a full decade after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, did Congress outlaw discrimination in housing and credit on the basis of sex. Until 1981, many states still designated the husband as the legal “head and master” of the household. And it took until 1984 for the court to compel previously all-male organizations such as the Rotary and Lions clubs to admit women. (That same year, the state of Mississippi finally ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the vote.)
Despite this uphill battle, women have come a long way, according to a report issued last month by the Council on Contemporary Families. In 1964, fewer than 3 percent of all attorneys and just three of the country’s 422 federal judges were women. Today half of law graduates and a full third of the Supreme Court justices are female. The number of female senators has increased tenfold.
In 1980, not a single woman occupied a corner office in a Fortune 100 company. According to this month’s Harvard Business Review, women now hold nearly 18 percent of the top jobs in those companies.
More women than men graduate from college today, and unlike 40 years ago, the average female college graduate now earns more than the average male high school graduate.
But we’re not “there” yet. At every educational level, women still earn less than men with comparable credentials, even when they work the same number of hours a week in the same kind of job. While women are now half of law school graduates and one-third of attorneys, they are only 15 percent of equity partners and 5 percent of managing partners in law firms. And at current hiring rates, it would take 278 years for men and women to fill equal numbers of CEO slots.
Some women, having broken into exclusive careers, are still trying to crack the glass ceiling. Many more women are still stuck in the basement, looking for an up escalator. Women constitute 62 percent of all minimum-wage workers, and working-class jobs are as sex-segregated today as they were in 1964. In all racial groups and at every age, women are more likely to live in poverty than men, although minority women are especially disadvantaged. African—American women earn just 64 cents, and Hispanic women just 55 cents, for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men.
Many of these inequities still result from discrimination. While few Americans would now openly claim that women are less capable than men, implicit bias tests consistently reveal that women are perceived as less competent, decisive or assertive than men. Studies also show that applications bearing female names are rated less qualified than identical applications bearing male names.
Additionally, wage rates reflect the historical legacy of gender segregation. Occupations traditionally associated with women pay less than men’s jobs even when they require the same or greater levels of skill and stamina. In 2010, the people who cared for the grounds surrounding our offices and homes (95 percent male) earned a median annual wage of $23,400. Those who cared for our children (94 percent female) earned just $19,300.
In 2010, the median annual wage for light delivery drivers, 94 percent of whom are male, was $27,500. Home health aides, 88 percent of whom are female, earned $7,000 less per year, even though they have higher average levels of education than the delivery drivers, do as much heavy lifting and spend more time on their feet. Among young childless individuals working exactly the same hours, health aides still earn 13 percent less than delivery drivers.
When couples have children, women fall even further behind, because policymakers have not caught up with new family realities. Dual-earner families are now the norm, but work policies are still designed for a labor force composed of full-time male workers with wives at home to take care of family obligations. The lack of family-friendly work policies and affordable quality child care, combined with men’s higher wages, encourages many women to cut back when work conflicts with family obligations.
But this reinforces gender inequality over the long run. On average, when a woman leaves the workforce for a year to care for a child, she loses almost 20 percent of her lifetime earnings power. If she spends three to four years away, this reduces her potential lifetime earnings by a full 40 percent. Mothers who do not quit work are also penalized. Studies show that employers are less likely to hire or promote mothers than childless women (or fathers) on the assumption that they are less committed to work.
So the bad news is that we have a way to go to reach equality. But the good news is that we have come far enough in the past 50 years that men now have as much of a stake as women in reaching that goal.
As late as 1977, two-thirds of Americans thought men should earn the money and women should stay home with the family. Today, only 30 percent of Americans favor such arrangements. Almost two-thirds now say it is best for husbands and wives to share paid work and family obligations. Ninety-seven percent support equal rights.
Since 1965, husbands have doubled their share of housework and tripled their share of child care. Interestingly, men now report higher levels of work—family conflict than women, largely because of these increased family commitments. But increasingly, men face the same discriminatory treatment as women if they ask for work—family accommodation.
If we paid women the same wages as men for comparable work, that would halve the poverty rate in American families. It would also raise the standard of living for males in two-earner working- and middle-class households. And if the United States adopted job-protected, subsidized family leave, as more than 180 other countries in the world already have done, men, women and children would all benefit. Pay equity, comparable worth policies and family-friendly work reforms are not just “women’s issues” any more. They are our next civil rights challenge — perhaps our next human rights challenge.
Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Her most recent book is “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.” Email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va. It was distributed by MCT Information Services.