Removing Barriers for Working Women the `Glass Ceiling' and the `Sticky Floor' Must Be Demolished to Create a More Equitable Workplace

By Karen Nussbaum. Karen Nussbaum is director of the Women's Bureau . | The Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 1994 | Go to article overview

Removing Barriers for Working Women the `Glass Ceiling' and the `Sticky Floor' Must Be Demolished to Create a More Equitable Workplace


Karen Nussbaum. Karen Nussbaum is director of the Women's Bureau ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE American workplace is not merely a physical location, it is an environment and a mind-set. Yet those of us who deal with work issues have described these ambiguous settings with concrete boundaries: The glass ceiling. The sticky floor. Brick walls.

The new focus on reinventing the American workplace gives women a chance to bend that rigid and unyielding architecture into a more flexible shape. Restructuring jobs to promote higher skills and performance provides us with an opening to break the historic trends that have equated women's jobs with unimportant work and low wages.

Over the past 12 years, the barriers facing working women - indeed all workers - have often seemed as inescapable as Alcatraz. The glass ceiling, for example, describes a real phenomenon: Women still represent only 2 percent of top-level management. And as recently as 1992, only 1 percent of women who worked at full-time jobs - a mere 368,000 nationwide - earned more than $75,000 - compared with the 3.2 million men who exceeded that level.

The sticky floor is equally real. More than two-thirds of the nation's 54 million working women are clustered in clerical, food service, or sales positions, or in nursing, teaching, or child care. Most are in low-paying slots, with little chance of upward mobility. Eighty percent of all women workers (and 40 percent of full-time women workers) earn less than $25,000.

Women are more likely to be among the working poor. More than 4 million families headed by women struggle to survive below the poverty line.

Between ceiling and floor, women have been walled in by diehard attitudes about their capabilities and worth. Despite the rhetoric of equality, women still earn only 71 cents for every dollar earned by men. Meanwhile, charges of sexual harassment and discrimination have continued to rise.

As if gender-based problems weren't enough, women have been severely tested by the same workplace setbacks affecting most of America's low- and mid-wage workers: Unemployment, runaway jobs, temporary and part-time work, moonlighting, stress-related illness, and despair have all soared. Meanwhile, our standard of living, benefits, good jobs, and basic fairness have plummeted.

The initiative to create a high-wage, high-skill workplace presents an opportunity to reverse these trends. For women especially, it is an opening to rebuild old structures and attitudes that have hampered true employment equality.

Recent studies show that, wherever a certain job category is perceived as "women's work," wages are predictably lower.

Last year, for example, a Massachusetts court ruled that female cafeteria workers in the Everett public school system performed work comparable to that of the male custodians. …

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