Women in the workplace

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We’re supposed to be here. Done and done.

The recent passing of former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and a casual perusal of an office copy of last October’s Forbes Magazine 100 most powerful women issue, coupled with the news that the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether to hear a massive class-action case of Walmart’s alleged discrimination against female employees, got me thinking women in the modern American workplace.

How could it not, right?

As a relatively young woman (I was 3 years old when Ferraro appeared on the Democratic Presidential ticket), it’s impossible for me to recall a time when women weren’t a fixture in America’s workplaces. At my office, women far outnumber men and that has at no time seemed even noteworthy, even though journalism was traditionally a field dominated by men.

I think now, a lot of young women take for granted that we’re established members of our workplaces. We’re here. We’re supposed to be here. Done and done.

But just because we’re here doesn’t mean we aren’t discriminated against regularly and without qualms.

I’ve held many, many jobs in my young life. I’ve lost count how many (my friends frequently ask how many jobs I’m currently holding, as that number has ranged from eight to two … always at least two): I’ve worked for four different hotel chains (from the Marriott to the Super 8), Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, a small bagel shop, Borders, a touristy retail store, a professional symphony orchestra, a local engineering firm, the American Red Cross, IBM, a local insurance agency, three newspapers, three community colleges and at least a dozen other places that I can’t remember right now.

By way of explanation: I have two art degrees.

Anyway, as a result of my diverse employment history, I’ve read through more than a few employee policies. I’ve worked for plenty of places without policies.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that whether a company has an official policy or not, women face sometimes shocking, sometimes just annoying discrimination, often doled out by their female superiors.

  • I was told by at least three former workplaces that my breasts were too large and that I should try to cover them up (a roomy burlap sack might be my only option here).
  • I was told by a male boss that I could have a promotion if I went back to his house with him. I didn’t go, and I didn’t get the promotion.
  • I had to pay out of pocket for a series of expensive STD tests after I was raped because my employer-provided health insurance didn’t cover it.
  • I’ve seen many, many policies that require women to wear nylons to work. Really? Nylons? Who wears those anymore? Come on.

But it’s not just my experiences. Many of my female friends share similar or more shocking stories.

  • A friend was fired by a major retail chain when she had to miss work due to complications in her pregnancy. The complications were caused when she did not go to the doctor because her employer-provided health insurance would not cover the extra visit.
  • A close friend was told by her company that she must take personal time to pump breast milk for her baby. That same company does not require smokers to take personal time for smoke breaks.
  • Another friend who was recently raped found herself working with her rapist’s best friend. When she asked HR to move either her or the newly hired man to another of the company’s several floors, she was told to get a doctor’s note confirming that she had a disability that required the move.

Now, I’ve worked for corporate America. I know things get bureaucratic and often policies are developed based on new laws or perceived abuse of privileges, with little thought to the way those policies might affect the majority of workers.

But often policies specifically target female workers, punishing them for things that only affect women, particularly for getting pregnant or taking maternity leave, but also making things that are more often the responsibility of women, such as child care and care of elderly relatives, more difficult by creating inflexible policies or being unwilling to offer more flexible schedules.

In Sweden, which is frequently referenced as one of the best places for gender equality in the workplace, parental leave (it’s parental, not maternity, because either parent can take it) is 480 paid days off and the country has a Discrimination Ombudsman who exists to regularly review gender equality in the workplace.

That said, I realize the gender gap is hardly news.

Women have been fighting against workplace discrimination for as long as they’ve been working. In Maine, women still only make 75 cents to a man’s dollar.

What is news, however, is that in an age where there are more women getting post-graduate degrees than men, more women held onto jobs during the recession, and more women are balancing work and home lives than ever before, that we’re still fighting against policies that treat us like second-class citizens.

I thought we’d pretty firmly established that we’re not.