A Brief History of Women in the Workplace

By Sarah Coker

In honor of Women’s History Month, it’s worth looking back on how far society has come in supporting women in the workplace. While there are still advancements to be made, each of these events was a prominent battle. They needed to be won in order to pave the way for the leaders of today. This is not an exhaustive list but is a quick look into the history of labor rights in the US. 

Photo: Chevanon Photography from Pexels

Three Critical Milestones that Made the Workplace What it is Today for Women

1 | Equal Pay Act of 1963: The First Law Mandating Equal Pay 

The first federal laws against gender wage discrimination was signed by John F Kennedy in 1963. An increased amount of women had recently entered the workplace due to the labor shortages of WWII. 

This law states that men and women are to be paid the same amount for the same job. This officially regulates pay standards for both sexes. 

However, the context surrounding this seemingly progressive bill wasn’t entirely pure. 

When the war ended, there was an overwhelming fear that cheap female labor would threaten job prospects for men. Guaranteeing women could not be paid less effectively provided a greater incentive to hire men instead. It was still a commonly held belief that male workers were superior. 

Nearly 60 years later, wage equality continues to be a controversial topic. Several subsequent policies have been enacted with limited success. 

Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
2 | Lorena Weeks v. Southern Bell (1966): Discouraged Hiring on the Basis of Sex

In this hallmark civil rights case, Lorena Weeks was a working-class woman living in Louisville, Georgia. For years she worked two jobs as a waitress and an operator for Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company. After taking time off to marry Billy Weeks and have children of her own, Lorena returned to the company. It was at this point working for Southern Bell, she decided to apply for an empty position as a switchboard operator. 

However, when she submitted an application to the job citing her qualifications and years of experience she was rejected. This was because the position was only offered to men. Their argument was based on a then Georgia State law stating that a woman could not be expected to lift more than 30 pounds, a requirement for the job.  After a lengthy court battle, Weeks was hired to the position and given $31,000 in back pay (equivalent to more than $250,000 today). The victory set an important legal precedent that women could be just as qualified for a wide variety of positions in the workplace both mentally and physically. 

3 | Family and Medical Leave Act (1993): Legally Protected Family Leave

In 1993, the US labor department enacted a policy that gave employees the right to take temporary medical and family leave under certain circumstances. FMLA states that eligible workers can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member, as well as to recover from an illness. The law is not without limitations, as not all employees qualify. They are required to have served a specific length of time with the company, and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the year before requesting leave. Paid leave is still not guaranteed. 

However, it marked a major win for female employees at the time by legally protecting maternity leave. During the first half of the 20th century, women were often treated as temporary employees who would not return to work once they married or had children. This 1993 bill served as an official symbol that the culture had changed, as well as an acknowledgement that women with families were a valid and critical percentage of the workforce.

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