If we consider all of the characteristics that serve as a basis for discrimination (sex, race, ethnicity, social class, age, etc.), the most significant in terms of economic well-being is sex. From an economic standpoint, it is certainly a disadvantage in our society to be black, poor, uneducated, and old, but arguably, the greatest disadvantage of all is to be a woman.
Women have made progress in the workplace and public life in recent years, but the great majority remain in traditional women's occupations doing
"women's work," including clerical and household occupations, food services, nursing, and school teaching. The large majority of higher-paying professional positions in business and industry, engineering, science, and technology are still occupied by men. Even in fields such as medicine and law, which have opened up for women to some degree in the past few decades, women tend to specialize in certain areas and men in others. Women doctors are more likely to specialize in pediatrics, psychiatry, and public health, while women lawyers tend to concentrate on domestic law and trusts rather than corporate or criminal law (Wass, 1993).
Despite some resistance from both officers and enlisted men (and sexual harassment scandals), more and more women are enlisting in the military services and being trained for all kinds of duties. So far, the concern that women are not physically or psychologically suited for combat, and that their presence interferes with male bonding and morale has restricted their assignment to noncombat positions. However, there is a great deal of political pressure to eliminate all sex distinctions in the treatment of women and men in all branches of the armed forces.
Sexism, the belief that the two sexes are fundamentally different in their abilities and that each is more suited for certain jobs or areas of concentration, is still quite prevalent in educational and employment contexts. Many people continue to feel that women's proper place is in the home and that they should not try to compete with men in the world of work. In many organizations, there appears to be a kind of glass ceiling, a subtle barrier to advancement by women—a level to which they can rise in a company but beyond which they cannot go. Certain authorities (e.g., Hymowitz & Schellhardt, 1986; Morrison & Von Glinow, 1990) maintain that a glass ceiling exists in the professions, private industry, and government. Women comprise 55% of the US. population aged 18 years and over and 46% of management, but only a small percentage are found on corporate boards of directors, in the U.S. Senate, or in state governors' chairs. Of course, this does not prove that the glass ceiling is the result of intentional discrimination against women. Perhaps women lack the abilities, personality characteristics, motivation, or stamina to succeed at higher levels of an organization. There is, however, no good evidence for the validity of this supposition. Rather, it would seem that the primary cause of the glass ceiling in most instances is quite purely and simply gender discrimination. It is practiced not only in the workplace but in the home, the school, the mass media, and the society at large. By being discriminated against, women find it difficult to attain the knowledge, skills, and social networks that come from interacting with other executives and staff professionals. Consequently, they are not given an adequate opportunity to demonstrate the incorrectness of the attitudes and biases toward them.
Another illustration of the problem of women not possessing the requisite skills for certain jobs occurs in the case of those who want or need to get back in the workforce but have little or no training and therefore have to settle for low-paying jobs with no chance for advancement and an inadequate retirement pension. Private pensions, in addition to Social Security, are made available to retired teachers and nurses, but in few other occupations that attract large numbers of women. Furthermore, for the most part, women's wages, and particularly the wages of minority women, are substantially lower that those for men. The median income of full-time working women in 1995 was $22,497, compared with $31,496 for men (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). In recent years, legal attention has been given to the concept of comparable worth. According to this concept, pay should be made equal in those occupations that are determined to be equivalent in importance but in which the relative numbers of men and women employees are substantially different. However, because of the difficulty of evaluating the demands made by different jobs, thus far proposed systems for determining comparable worth have not proven very effective.
In addition to being denied equal status with men in the world of work, women are often sexually harassed and in other ways treated as sex objects rather than as individuals. Gender stereotypes abound in advertising and in other branches of the media. One illustration is faceism, the tendency to focus on men's faces but on women's bodies when photographing or filming them. As long as sex sells and the doctrine of free enterprise prevails, such practices will probably continue. However, men should be cautioned that women are more likely to find touching, staring, and related behaviors offensive than men are (Fitzgerald & Ormerod, 1991). The problem of mutual awareness and understanding between the sexes has led to the legal criterion of sexual harassment known as the reasonable woman standard (Elison v. Brady, 1991). According to this standard, even if the male perpetrator of an action that allegedly involved sexual harassment did not consider it offensive, if it can be concluded that a "reasonable woman" would view it as offensive, then in law it is considered to be so.
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