Are Women the New Majority in the Workplace?
A symposium looks at the gains women have made in the workplace—and considers the challenges that lie ahead.
It was a day Clara Goldberg Schiffer ’32 would have enjoyed. From start to finish, the message of speakers at the September 9 symposium titled “The New Majority? The Past, Present, and Future of Women in the Workplace” was about the gains women have made by working together and the fight that still lies ahead to achieve equity with men. In her long career in the federal government, Schiffer dedicated herself to working in behalf of women and children.
Held in honor of Schiffer’s generosity to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, the symposium featured 10 speakers, including Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, who opened the day's proceedings. Faust commented on the importance of the Schlesinger, “the library that embodies the history of women,” and said that from her days as dean of the Radcliffe Institute, she remembered Schiffer well. Schiffer died in 2009.
Answering the question posed by the symposium's title, Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, said that for a brief time, at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, when the recession hit more men’s jobs than women’s, women did represent more than half of nonfarm employees on payrolls. But in the subsequent recovery, men gained more jobs while women’s job losses continued.
Lynn Rhinehart, general counsel of the AFL-CIO, was unequivocal about the value of labor unions for women: “The benefits and advantages of women being represented by a union at work are numerous, plentiful, overwhelming.” Women covered by union contracts are more likely to have paid sick days and paid holidays, she said, and the pay gap is smaller for them.
One of Clara Schiffer's daughters, Lois J. Schiffer ’66, summed up the timeliness of the symposium, pointing out that women have more opportunities than they had in the past but still face many obstacles. “The stalling of our economy, the partisan divide, the failure of all of us to convey effectively what the government does for our benefit, the greatest income disparity since the 1920s—all of these are grave challenges for workers in our nation and women workers in particular.”