How Women in the 70s and 80s Rose to Senior Management

From the late 1970s to the early 21st century, women’s participation in the labor force began a steady climb. What was remarkable about this era? The number of women in the workforce with a child under the age of 1 rose from 20 to 62 percent.

At the same time, young women in their late teens started to alter their career expectations. Mindsets shifted, and women began to expect long, unbroken careers. Marriage and children would no longer interrupt their professions. In turn, this development motivated them to invest more in their education. Growing numbers went to college and beyond. It prepared them for careers that gave them prestige closer to men in the workplace.

Then, women began to postpone marriage and childbearing. Part of the reason was the growing popularity of the birth control pill. This reliable contraceptive gave women control over the timing of childbearing. Women began to see their identities and their lives differently. Their professional selves became as crucial as their families.

Experts have noted an interesting trend in women’s participation in the workforce. In the 1970s, a single income could no longer support a comfortable lifestyle. It was an economic need, and not opportunity, that drove women out to work. The rise in Affirmative Action forced companies to place women in non-traditional positions. That forced experience also helped to change the cultural mindset.

Women in Management Positions

The first-ever female CEO of a Fortune 500 company was Katharine Graham. She became the Washington Post parent’s CEO in 1972, breaking a new barrier, and was often the only woman in the newsroom. Other females rose to prominence in the 70s and 80s. Of note were Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial and Linda Wachner of Warnaco Group Inc.

In 1980, no women had reached the top executive ranks of the Fortune 100. Eleven percent of those corporate leaders were women by 2001. The number of businesses with female CEOs has increased more than six-fold.

Since 1980, American firms have created almost 4.5 million management positions. Women occupy 2.6 million of these positions. Unfortunately, the gender wage gap has kept step with these statistics. Women’s increasing representation in management is in “feminized” fields. The gender wage gaps are the most extreme in those fields. But the lowest gaps are in occupations with the lowest proportions of women. For example, engineering and architecture have small wage gaps.

Gender-Based Barriers to Senior Management

Most Americans find women as innovative and intelligent as men. Yet, very few women reach the top executive level. Why are so few women making it to the C-suite? Females who want to ascend to the highest levels in business also face a double standard. They have to eclipse males if they’re going to prove themselves.

Enter the concept of the “Glass Ceiling.” The US Department of Labor described the glass ceiling in 1991 as a set of artificial obstacles based on arbitrariness. They obstruct qualified individuals from promotions to management positions in their organization. The path that women must take to reach the executive level is complex with diverse barriers.

Yet, diversity in the workplace is good for business. The new service economy relies on skills that come easily to women. For example, this economy calls for attention to detail, determination, and measured thinking. The problems with the obstacles facing women are human created. Organizations and society need to do more to give all women the chance to rise to the top.

The inaccurate perception of gender equality limits opportunities for women as a group. Why? Because it creates false optimism. It also eliminates the perceived need to make things better. News articles sometimes tout examples of successful women. They flaunt them as evidence that the glass ceiling is no more. A few women have found their way into positions of power. Yet, many inequalities still exist in the representation of women in senior positions.

Most incumbent CEOs and board members are men. They set the tone and culture for determining who is fit to succeed. Also, a woman’s childcare situation is a significant determinant in whether she attains the rank of CEO. Finding high-quality, affordable childcare remains a challenge. By the time she becomes CEO, a woman would have had to withstand a lot.

The demands of family life have also increased. Being a mother has become more intensive. Today’s working mothers spend as much time with their children as did stay-at-home moms in the 1970s.

Closing the Gender Gap

Businesses have made progress in advancing women’s careers. They still have a long way to go in achieving true gender equality in the workplace. Yet, everyone benefits from closing the gender gap. Customers benefit, and so do teams, and even companies’ bottom lines. Females made great strides in the 1970s and 80s as they entered the workforce. It’s time to build on those gains and make the C suite more hospitable to women.