Washington Outlook/Congress/White House

Women at Work Find Reinforced Glass Ceilings

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Promotion barriers, harassment, pregnancy and motherhood bias, unequal pay. Women in the paid work force say these are all pillars propping up a glass ceiling.

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Sarah Dunne

PORTLAND, Ore. (WOMENSENEWS)--With two decades of experience under her belt, Lindsay Hall was confident she was a strong candidate for a promotion within the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency in Oregon where she works as a wildlife biologist.

But after agency "subject matter experts" reviewed all candidates who received the highest ranking from the agency personnel department, Hall--who asked that her name be changed because she still works for the government--found herself cut from the applicant pool. Two candidates, both male, were interviewed, and the one who was offered the job had about five years' experience, compared to Hall's 20.

It was not the first time she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a male applicant with less time in the field. Six years earlier, Hall and another woman both applied for an agency position that dealt with hydrosystem policy on the Columbia River's network of power-generating dams. Hall had policy experience, and the other woman had done her master's thesis on the Columbia River hydrosystem. But a less experienced man with a social science degree was hired.

After the second job slipped away, Hall filed a "pre-grievance" with the agency, providing her access to confidential personnel documents. She discovered that the "subject matter experts" ranked her a couple of points below the man who got the job despite her greater experience. They drew what she describes as an "arbitrary line" between her name and his and didn't interview anyone below it.

"When it happens to you, it doesn't take but once or twice and you start to become mistrustful," said Hall. "It's very demoralizing. You end up shifting your focus away from work as a survival tactic."

Few Squeeze Through the Porthole

Rather than calling it a "glass ceiling," Hall sees advancement within her agency as a "porthole" that only a select few can pass through. Younger men, she says, seem to have an easier time getting through the porthole than women, even if the women have more experience under their belts.

Despite her frustration, Hall has been reluctant to leave her job because of her seniority and the benefits it provides. But the thought of losing out on another promotion has left her considering her options.

While women such as Hall might keep their jobs, they say the cracks in the glass ceiling that once seemed to be widening have been filled by a number of sticky problems, such as sex bias in promotions, sexual harassment, pregnancy and motherhood bias, and unequal pay for equal work.

The average 25-year-old woman who works until age 65 will earn $523,000 less over her lifetime than the average working male, according to a 2004 report compiled by Milwaukee-based 9to5 National Association of Working Women.

It's a discrepancy largely due to women earning less than their male colleagues for doing the same work.

Although the gender wage gap has narrowed over the last three decades, at its current rate it will take until 2057 to close, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently dealt a blow to women's ability to sue their employers for pay discrimination. In the 5-4 Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision handed down last year, the court's majority ruled that employees cannot sue unless they have first filed a formal complaint with a federal agency within 180 of the discriminatory pay being set. Since salary information is often secret, a woman may not know she was paid less until the clock has run out.

While some members of Congress attempted to redress the court's decision through the Fair Pay Restorative Act, so far their efforts have been stymied. The bill is stalled after a Republican filibuster in the Senate, but a group of female senators hopes to resurrect it later this year.

"Women are earning just 77 cents for every dollar our male counterpart makes," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as she and nine other female senators announced their "Checklist for Change" agenda on June 17. "Equality in a woman's checkbook depends on change in the federal law book."

Half of Women Are Harassed

In 2007, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--the federal agency that investigates bias complaints--received 12,510 charges of sexual harassment, 84 percent of which were filed by female employees.

Gender Wage Ratio for Full-Time Workers 1955-2005

To see the chart, please go to:http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3663

Yet the number doesn't reflect the thousands of women who do not file formal complaints due to fear of retribution. Surveys indicate that almost half of all working women experience some form of sexual harassment on the job, according to the Washington-based National Women's Law Center.

When Hall was recruited as a wildlife officer in the early days of her career, she was required to attend law enforcement academy. Her class consisted of 67 men and six women. The male instructor began every day with a sexist joke.

"He once joked that the most painful part of a male-to-female sex operation was the part where half the brain is sucked out through a straw," said Hall. "I had to listen to this kind of thing every morning."

Those most vulnerable to harassment are employees who do not have the resources to take legal action, such as low-wage workers. Women account for 59 percent of workers earning less than $8 per hour, according to a 2001 study by the New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women.

"These workers really need the money, so they're less likely to file a complaint or quit," said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in Seattle. "Quite often, they're not aware of their rights, so employers who take advantage of them are not held accountable."

Bias Complaints Hit New High

A woman who has been spared any discrimination or harassment may find that changes when she becomes pregnant.

A 2004 study by the Washington-based National Partnership for Women and Families found that between 1992 and 2003, pregnancy discrimination complaints increased 39 percent, even though the nation's birth rate dropped by 9 percent.

The surge may be due to the fact that more women--about three-quarters--are opting to keep working after they become pregnant.

"Employers put women in a category where they think they're not going to be reliable," said Janet Chung, and attorney with the Northwest Women's Law Center in Seattle. "It's not just about pregnancy, but the whole frontier of family responsibility discrimination. They may think a newly married, younger woman will become pregnant soon and not be committed to her job. Or if she has children, they may assume she doesn't want to travel. Rather than assessing a woman's performance on the job, they make assumptions."

Hall says that while she sticks with her job, plenty of women who are passed over for promotions, earn less than male counterparts or who face harassment may opt to leave their jobs.

"Employers lose years of experience when women leave," said Hall. "It goes against our original American values to realize that you can have great ideas and potential, lots of experience, be the best person for the job and still be slapped to the ground."

Jennifer Waldref is a freelance writer and communications specialist in Olympia, Washington.

 
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