Archive for the ‘women’s issues’ Category
Tuesday, June 26th, 2012
Credit: Joe Kekeris
One of the stats that always amazes is this: If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.52 per hour today.
Instead, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That translates to $15,080 per year, below the poverty line for a family of three—if the work is full-time.
Stunning as that is, it gets even worse when you realize that the majority of those paid the minimum wage are women: In 2011, more than 62 percent of minimum wage workers were women, compared with only 38 percent of male minimum wage workers, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
It’s especially bad that women make up the majority of minimum wage earners because women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a typical man earns. Women of color are far more likely to hold low-wage jobs than men, and two-thirds of mothers now are either the breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. Their lower wages mean they will receive less from Social Security, their primary source of retirement income.
Slightly more than 2.5 million women earn the minimum wage or less, while about 1.5 million men do.
Pointedly, the report notes:
From 1968 to 2010, incomes for the top 1 percent of earners increased by 110 percent, but the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage has fallen by 31 percent. If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.52 per hour today.
But these same 1 percenters are some of those who block efforts at the local and national levels to raise the minimum wage. In fact, research has shown no job loss results from reasonable minimum wage increases, even when the economy is struggling.
On the contrary, a minimum wage increase boosts consumer spending and can improve the nation’s weak economy by growing demand through increased purchasing power.
This blog originally appeared in ALC-CIO on June 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.
Monday, June 11th, 2012
From birth control pills to equal pay, women are a favorite target in the country’s most heated political wars. But a much quieter struggle is being waged over women’s bodies in their neighborhoods and workplaces, where a minefield of pollutants threaten working mothers and their children.
According to new research from the the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, working pregnant women who are exposed on the job to toxins known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are more likely to have children with gastroschisis, a rare birth defect in which the intestines stick out from the baby’s body, generally requiring surgical repair.
The study, summarized by Environmental Health News, reveals a distinct link between women’s occupational exposure and the prevalence of the defect: “mothers who were exposed to PAHs had 1.5 times the risk of having a baby with gastroschisis compared to women who were not exposed to PAHs at work.”
While this is a rare defect, the troubling context of these findings is the prevalence of PAH pollution in women’s workplaces. The researchers noted, “assessing workplace exposure to PAHs is important because ‘more than 95 percent of employed women in the United States remain employed during pregnancy’ and ‘an increasing number of women are being exposed in their jobs to chemicals that can harm the fetus.’” The researchers especially noted exposures among women working as “cashiers in fast food restaurants.”
PAH’s are an ubiquitous byproduct of everyday combustible materials like oil and coal. Studies have linked the contamination they cause when burned and churned into the atmosphere with health problems that can shape a kid’s entire upbringing, ranging from developmental disabilities to childhood obesity.
A separate study on women in New York City linked prenatal PAH exposure to behavioral issues that could pose a lifelong burden. Researchers with the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found a connection between a pregnant woman’s exposure to PAH-laden air and the chances that her child will by age 6 or 7 show mental health symptoms such as anxiety or attention problems. These long-term behavioral patterns, the researchers wrote, “suggest an adverse impact of prenatal PAH exposure… that could impact cognitive development and ability to learn.”
The ramifications of toxic childhood environments are a global issue. A 2010 study on women in Krakow, Poland, revealed similar impacts of PAH exposure in the womb, with a significant effect on intelligence tests at age 5.
To environmental justice activists, the synergy between pollution and social hardship intersects with barriers surrounding urban communities. Environmental hazards compound the burdens that already shadow children growing up in disadvantaged communities: poverty, gaps in healthcare and education, racial segregation.
The recent Columbia study, which focused on New York City women of black and Dominican descent, noted that “Urban, minority populations in the U.S. often have disproportionate exposure to air pollution.” According to ABC News, the investigators also accounted for other issues associated with the stresses and hazards urban life–like exposure to secondhand smoke and the mother’s mental health (“demoralization” was one potential factor)–which can also shape children’s development.
Much of this environnmental research focuses on everyday exposures, not work-related pollution specifically. But in unhealthy workplaces, there’s a unique convergence of economic, gender and environmental injustice. The economic and ecological abuses looming over working-class women on the job each day may pose crippling costs for the whole family.
Urban environmental justice advocates recognize that workplace protections, especially for working moms and women of childbearing age, are critical for community health. Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of the Harlem-based environmental group WE ACT, says, “It’s a good thing to avoid creating a dynamic where a worker has to choose between their health and their livelihood. It’s like forcing someone to choose between either having a heart or having lungs.”
Dr. Shanna Swan, a professor of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says more research is needed on the intersection between workplace health and the everyday exposures that encircle expecting mothers in struggling communities:
This is an important and understudied area, especially since exposures are usually far higher in the occupational setting than those to which the general public is exposed, and because the period of fetal development is the most sensitive window; developmental damage during this time is irreversible. We have just begun to recognize that this may be a sensitive window, not only the developing fetus, but for the pregnant woman herself, since she is subject to the stress of pregnancy, workplace stress and likely the added stress of low socioeconomic status. All of these may contribute to adverse development for the fetus and challenges to the woman’s own health.
The right rallies to defend the sanctity of “the unborn” while vilifying women for trying to exercise reproductive choices in response to socioeconomic realities. This is the same kind of rhetoric that assaults environmental regulation, healthcare programs, and labor protections that alleviate gender inequity. So the ideology that claims to honor life actually militates against the right to a healthy childhood and safe community. Women’s bodies carry the burden of this hypocrisy, and the next generation will bear the fruits of the injustice.
This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on June 8, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.
Wednesday, May 30th, 2012
The New York Times’ Catherine Rampell highlighted data from Payscale, a salary tracking firm, showing that “by the time women reach age 39, their wage growth pretty much stops altogether.” By that age, the average college-educated, full-time female worker is making about $60,000. For men, meanwhile, wage growth doesn’t stop until age 48.
This post originally appeared in ThinkProgress on May 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Pat Garofalo is Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Pat’s work has also appeared in The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and In These Times. He has been a guest on MSNBC and Al-Jazeera television, as well as many radio shows. Pat graduated from Brandeis University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot, Brandeis’ community newspaper, and worked for the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
May Day—International Workers’ Day—is a day when there should be no borders or barriers between workers around the world, said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, at a special May Day forum at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., today.
Bader-Blau presented video greetings from union leaders and worker activists around the globe, including Heli Vargas, International Affairs secretary of one of the Solidarity Center’s partners in Peru, the CGTP (Confederacion General de Trabajadores del Peru). Said Vargas:
“Just as the companies are globalized to exploit us, the actions of the workers and unions must also be globalized as businesses are.”
The forum focused on the challenges and conditions of Latina and immigrant workers in the United States and women workers around the globe. Andrea Delgado, senior policy analyst and communications manager for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), said there are some 24 million Latinas in the United States—64 percent native born and 36 percent foreign born. Citing data from a new LCLAA report, Delgado said with 60 percent or fewer Latinas holding a high school degree, many are in low-wage, low-quality jobs where “they are an easy target for discrimination.” Also, in many cases,
“their immigrant status is used as a tool to prevent them from organizing into unions or going to the government to report abuses and other employer violations.”
Delgado noted that Latina workers suffer from the same—and often more so—wage and job discrimination and sexual harassment as all women workers. She said LCLAA and other workers’ right groups are fighting to ensure Latinas have jobs:
where their rights are respected—not just as workers—but as women.
You can find out more from LCLAA’s report, “Trabajadoras: Challenges and Conditions of Latina Workers in the United States.” Click here to download.
The forum included Iris Munguia, the first women elected to lead COLSIBA, the union for banana workers in eight Latin American nations. Speaking through a translator, Munguia explained how women built power and a voice in a male-dominated sector, first by forming women’s committees at individual worksites that grew into a coalition throughout Honduras before building out to other nations.
They have developed a Women’s Rights Platform that is now a template used in negotiations with nearly two dozen large employers. The three central demands are:
- More employment of women that includes the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining;
- Limiting the use of chemicals and other pesticides in the fields; and
- The end of sexual harassment.
COLSIBA has worked closely with the AFL-CIO in the recent filing of petition with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs that charges the Honduran government with failure to effectively enforce its labor laws and comply with its commitments under the six-year-old Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). Click here for more.
Munguia said she couldn’t stress enough,
“The high importance that solidarity has been with our sisters and brothers in the United States and across Latin America….Your help will help us win.”
About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Thursday, April 14th, 2011
The improved jobs figures out last Friday obscured the ongoing decline in public-sector jobs. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted when releasing the March unemployment data:
Employment in local government continued to trend down over the month. Local government has lost 416,000 jobs since an employment peak in September 2008.
The loss of such jobs is important because the nation’s well-being depends not only on job numbers increasing, but on the creation of quality jobs—those that pay decent wages and enable people to attain or maintain a middle-class life. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), the new jobs being created aren’t as good as the ones that have been lost. NELP found that jobs in lower wage industries, such as retail and food preparation, made up 23 percent of the jobs that were lost in the recent recession. Yet they made up 49 percent of the jobs the economy has gained in the past year. As the BBC Business puts it:
In other words, it appears that while people may finally be returning to work, they have to work for less pay.
In contrast, jobs in the public sector have provided such economic stability. They have also made it possible for some of the nation’s most economically marginalized—women and minorities—to achieve financial security often denied them in the private sector.
So attacks on public employees hit women and black workers especially hard.
Susan Feiner, professor of economics and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, writes that:
employees at the federal (43 percent female), state (53 percent female) and local (61 percent female) levels have been able to better resist the wage reductions, benefit cuts and mass lay-offs that giant multinational corporations have visited upon employees over the last decade.
Yet Feiner finds that “while women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession,”
women lost the vast majority—79 percent—of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.
Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, writes today about the striking results of his new research brief, Blacks and the Public Sector. In sum:
- The public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.
- During 2008-2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers were public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers. Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.
- The public sector is also a critical source of decent-paying jobs for black worker. For both men and women, the median wage earned by black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.
- Prior to the recession, the wage differential between black and white workers was less in the public sector than in the overall economy.
As California Progress Report writes:
For blacks and others, “the best anti-poverty program is union organizing,” the UC Berkeley Labor Center notes on its website.”
And so moves by Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio to shred the ability of public employees to bargain for a decent middle-class life are also specifically targeting the ability of women and black workers to remain in the economic mainstream.
About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (she was represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.
This blog originally was post on AFL-CIO on April 5, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
Wednesday, April 13th, 2011
Yesterday, equal rights advocates marked Equal Pay Day to remind the nation that women are paid just 80 cents for every dollar men earn, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Fair Pay Act of 2011 that would ensure that employers provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.
Harkin says that discrimination accounts for much of the pay gap and there are too many loopholes and barriers to effective enforcement of existing laws. “We need to strengthen penalties and give women the tools they need to confront discrimination.”
At the same time, we must recognize that the problem of unequal pay goes beyond insidious discrimination. As a nation, we unjustly devalue jobs traditionally performed by women, even when they require comparable skills to jobs traditionally performed by men.
Millions of jobs dominated by women such as social workers, teachers, child care workers and nurses are equivalent in skills, effort, responsibility and working conditions to similar jobs dominated by men says Harkin:
But the female-dominated jobs pay significantly less. This is inexplicable. Why is a housekeeper worth less than a janitor? Why is a parking meter reader worth less than an electrical meter reader? Why is a social worker worth less than a probation officer?
Commentator Debbie Hines writes on OpEdNews.com today:
Women’s salaries are outpaced by men almost everywhere from the highest paying occupation to the lowest paying occupations. Everywhere from doctors and lawyers to cashiers and lesser positions, women earn less than their male counterparts.
The Fair Pay Act would also require employers to publicly disclose their job categories and their pay scales, without requiring specific information on individual workers. Under current law women who believe they are the victim of pay discrimination must file a lawsuit and endure a drawn-out legal discovery process to find out whether they make less than the man working beside them.
It took Lilly Ledbetter nearly 20 years before she discovered she was being paid less than men doing the same job and was able to file suit. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against her in 2007, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that helps level the playing field for victims of wage discrimination that President Obama signed in 2009. Says Harkin:
On this Equal Pay Day, let us make sure that what happened to Lilly never happens again by recommitting to eliminate discrimination in the workplace and make equal pay for equal work a reality
Click here for more information on the Fair Pay Act.
About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent.
This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on April 12, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
Hundreds of people will show their support outside the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, when the High Court hears oral arguments in what could become the largest class-action civil rights suit in U.S. history.
The Stand with the Women of Wal-Mart rally will take place as the nation’s highest court hears arguments on Wal-Mart v. Dukes to decide whether the case can move forward as a class action.
Ten years ago, a group of women who worked at Wal-Mart stores, led by Betty Dukes, filed a lawsuit alleging the corporation engaged in company-wide gender discrimination by paying women less than men, promoting fewer women to management positions and promoting male employees more quickly. The case, now a class action, has made its way to the Supreme Court.
Wal-Mart is challenging the decision by a lower court to allow the women employed at Wal-Mart stores across the country to join together in a class action lawsuit to challenge pay and promotion practices that discriminate against women.
If Wal-Mart succeeds in keeping these women from joining together, the already uphill battle for women to fight pay discrimination will get even worse. But If the women prevail, their case will become the largest class-action civil rights suit in the nation’s history, with some 1.6 million female Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club employees.
A coalition of women’s, workers’ and religious groups are sponsoring the rally, including the AFL-CIO constituency group, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).
In a statement, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), another rally sponsor, says class action can send a strong message to employers to follow the law in the first place. Lisa Maatz, AAUW’s director of public policy and government relations, says:
This case illuminates the dirty little secret that women know all too well — that pay discrimination is alive and well and undermining the economic security of American families.
About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.
This blog originally appeared in ALFCIO on March 28, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.
Wednesday, March 9th, 2011
The problems facing working women extend across national boundaries, and today, International Women’s Day, women organizers on opposite sides of the world shared ideas and inspiration. In a live teleconference, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler and four young women organizers in the United States talked with a roomful of women organizers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Shuler began by saying:
With the global jobs crisis increasing unemployment…young workers, young women workers entering the workforce struggle to find decent work. Given the challenges facing young women workers around the world, the AFL-CIO, ITUC [International Trade Union Confederation] and [the South African trade union federations] hope to use International Women’s Day as a way to shine a spotlight on the important role unions can play in the lives of young women workers.
Organizers in both countries spoke about rising unemployment and precarious work as key challenges to organizing women workers. Unemployment among women around the world is growing. In a special report, Living With Economic Insecurity: Women in Precarious Work,” the ITUC, found that while the initial impact of the crisis was equally detrimental to men and women, increasing numbers of women are now either losing their jobs or being forced into temporary and informal forms of work. To read the full report, click here.
During the teleconference, Jacquelyn Jones, an AFSCME organizer in Baltimore, said unions can play a major role in helping women find good jobs. But many young people don’t know about unions and it is important to educate them.
Although the workers in both countries face similar problems of discrimination, low pay and balancing work with family, the South African workers said they have a particular problem with sexual harassment. In many industries, such as textiles, women have to perform sexual favors often to get a job and get promotions.
The South African women included members from three union federations: Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).
The South African women described how their labor laws protect their freedom to join a union on paper, employers often ignore the rules in practice. They fire workers who join unions.
Women in both countries said the teleconference energized and inspired them. Alista Hubbard and Karin Firoza, both AFSCME organizers, described how organizing has changed their lives. Nafisah Ula, a researcher in the AFL-CIO’s Center for Strategic Research, said her organizing experience showed her how much power working people can have when they come together.
Participants said they will continue to work to create change, despite the challenges. As Gertrude Mtsweni, COSATU’s gender coordinator, said:
Touch a woman, you touch a rock. If one woman gets weak, one comes to lift her up. Together we came and together we can do more.
Though we are far apart in distance, we are together in courage.
This blog was originally posted on http://blog.aflcio.org on March 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: James Park’s first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and has worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.
Friday, October 1st, 2010
Here are a few short takes about employment discrimination stories that made the news this past week:
New Evidence Of Gender Pay Gap And Discrimination Against Mothers In Management
Women made little progress in climbing into management positions according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office yesterday.
As of 2007, the last year for which the data was available, women made up only 40% of managers in the United States work force compared to 39% in 2000. In all but 13 industries covered by the report, women had a significantly smaller share of management positions than men when compared to the overall workforce.
In addition, managers who were mothers earned 79 cents of every dollar paid to managers who were fathers.
The report was prepared at the request of Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, and chairwoman of the Joint Economic Committee for a hearing before that committee on Tuesday — where witnesses talked about the “shockingly slow rate of progress” for women in corporate management positions and the “motherhood wage penalty.”
Several individuals who testified urged the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act as a partial remedy to the issues surrounding gender discrimination in the workforce.
For more about the report read the NY Times article here. For a copy of the report from Rep. Maloney’s website and more about the hearing read and watch here.
Employee With Multiple Sclerosis Settles Discrimination Case For $1.2 Million
An ex-employee of the Madison New Jersey Board of Education with multiple sclerosis settled her disability discrimination case for $1,200,000, including attorney fees, as reported yesterday by DailyRecord.com and Lawyers USA. Disability discrimination is prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Joan Briel, a former accounts payable secretary, was diagnosed with MS in 2002. She claimed that her employer retaliated against her by inappropriately increasing her workload, repeatedly harassing her and failing to take action on her requests for reasonable accommodation — including her request to work on the first floor instead of the third floor.
Briel also claimed that the stress of the work environment caused her to relapse and that she was fired while she was on medical leave.
The case was heading for a jury trial when the settlement was reached. Ms. Briel will receive $412,000 in the settlement. Her attorneys will receive $877,303 for the work they did on the case. The court also awarded Briel over $43,000 in costs.
Plaintiffs in civil rights cases may recover attorneys’ fees – if they prevail — in addition to their individual award in most cases. These legal provisions are intended to encourage attorneys to represent individuals who are unable to invoke the protection of civil rights laws because they can not afford a lawyer.
Discrimination cases are difficult to litigate and are often complex and protracted. Therefore, it’s not unusual for the attorneys’ fees ( on both sides) to be larger than the award, or greater than the amount in controversy.
This newly reported case is but one example of the potentially high costs to employers when employment discrimination cases are not resolved early.
EEOC Settles Race Discrimination And Retaliation Case For $400,000
The Cleveland office of the EEOC announced a $400,000 settlement of a class action race discrimination and retaliation case against Mineral Met Inc., a division of Chemalloy Company.
Evidence in the case showed that black employees were disciplined for trivial matters – such as having facial hair or using a cell phone — while white employees were not disciplined for the same conduct. When one of the supervisors complained, it resulted in intensified racially discriminatory treatment and retaliation according to the EEOC.
The EEOC also charged that African-American employees were also subjected to other forms of racial harassment, including evidence that a white supervisor placed a hangman’s noose on a piece of machinery. (once again shocking that this is still going on)
Race discrimination in employment and retaliation for complaining about discrimination violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Blog.
About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.
Tuesday, September 28th, 2010
Like many baby boomers who regularly watch AMC’s “Mad Men,” I marvel at how accurately they get it: the smoky ambiance, the retro style and the subtleties of how people lived, worked and played in those good/bad ole days. Each Sunday we watch history unfold through the characters who work at the Sterling, Draper, Cooper and Pryce Ad Agency. A recent episode (aired on 9/12/10) particularly intrigued me, as a psychologist and author who writes about women’s issues in contemporary society. The episode brilliantly illustrated a cultural phenomenon that I have called “the beauty paradox.” (see my recent Huffington Post piece by that name), highlighting its origins and continued influence in today’s world.
The beauty paradox is the ambivalence women feel about the role beauty plays in their personal and professional lives. Should or shouldn’t looks matter? Are smart women taken less seriously if they place importance on their appearance? Are sensuality and femininity at odds with ambition and success at work? In “Mad Men” — where women are growing increasingly madder about this burgeoning issue — we get to watch a dramatization of this cultural phenomenon.
This particular episode revolved largely around the two females leads: Joan, the voluptuous secretary and Peggy, the brainy creative director. They engage in a series of interchanges with their male office mates, who range from the crude and chauvinistic to the slowly emotionally evolving partner in charge, Don Draper. The boys view Joan both as an object of desire and derision, openly poking fun at the role she plays in the office. “Joan’s on the desk with boobs on the blotter,” they laugh, underestimating her innate, instinctive intelligence, even if we viewers know better. Peggy is portrayed as smarter and more ambitious, the worker-bee who can hardly relate to Joan. The men devalue her too, as the gal trying to be one of the boys, although they hardly view her, or any woman, as a serious professional threat. When Peggy asks advice of Draper — the only male who seems unfazed by either of these women — he encourages her to take the matter into her own hands. A cultural revolution is beginning.
Here is where it gets complicated. As we see roles start to change and power begin to shift, we also witness an internal battle growing within women themselves. And it is there that “Mad Men” gets it right again. Peggy is shown trying to deal with these bad boys in the professional manner suggested by her boss. Being new to this role, she tries first to give them fair warning about Joan’s true influence in the office, but she gets nowhere. They continue the banter, mocking Joan, “What do you do around here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?” Peggy is then faced with an internal debate, one that I believe continues in the minds of many women today: does she side with her own sex against the men’s demeaning attitude toward a fellow female worker? Or does she look the other way in order to side with the men, who clearly dominate the coveted roles at the agency? Mustering up courage, she decides to fire Joey, Joan’s most flagrant abuser and as he leaves, he tells Peggy, “Well, I was wrong about you.” To his fellow ad men, Joey warns “Watch out fellas, the fun is over.” These may be the episode’s most revealing and interesting moments. Clearly, Peggy is hurt by the men’s disappointment in her, but she also feels triumphant as she exercises, for the first time, the authority granted by her boss. She feels, in fact, more like one of the boys than she ever has, excited by the power she senses will grow.
That is, until she shares her courageous act with Joan, who is not at all pleased by Peggy’s defense of her womanhood. From Joan’s perspective, she has only been further devalued, this time by her female cohort whose actions have painfully highlighted Joan’s position — the beautiful secretary who needs to be saved by someone with more male-like power. We, as viewers, also shift from applauding Peggy’s new found consciousness to lamenting any diminution of Joan, a woman we know is capable of defending herself. The beauty paradox is played out between these two women for us all to see. It is a drama surprisingly similar to the one played all too often (albeit, behind closed doors) in women’s lives today.
While the reality of sexual harassment has changed somewhat since the “Mad Men” days, women continue to struggle with how to mesh beauty and sensuality with their professional lives. They struggle with one another — like Joan and Peggy did — and within themselves. They worry if their looks will interfere with their climb up the ladder. They are not sure if overt femininity displays power or weakness. The dilemma still remains; which side to take? Should the Joans of today minimize their beauty in the service of establishing themselves as smart, clever women? Should today’s Peggys let themselves enjoy being a girl and embellish their femininity or will that put them at risk of losing out in their race to the top?
Joan was on to something in that elevator when she told Peggy she would not be seen as a heroine so much as just “another humorless bitch.” The Women’s Movement was supposed to resolve this dilemma as the glass ceilings were being broken at Sterling, Draper, Cooper, Pryce and elsewhere. But the truth is, women continue to struggle with this issue in spite of all the crashing and breaking they’ve done over the past 50 years. We may have a female Secretary of State. Women sit as judges on the Supreme Court. There are Peggy Olsens all over the media world. Yet still, being female, attractive and powerful at the same time remains a complicated equation. The title of AMC’s hit series may be “Mad Men,” but in many ways the show is about its women and the evolution of their revolution.
Oh, and let’s not forget Betty Draper, suffering out there in stagnant suburbia. Her unhappy, stay-at-home mother role is about to undergo its own revolution. Fast forward (which means an episode sure to be coming soon) to another Betty, with the last name Friedan. She will give an identity to the “no name illness,” being increasingly experienced by the women of “Mad Men’s” era. And from what women tell me today, I’m not sure we have yet found a full cure for this cultural malady. Your thoughts?
This article was originally posted on The Huffington Post
About The Author: Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. After completing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she went on to do postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis at NYU. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models, and dancers, and served as a consultant to a major cosmetic company interested in promoting age-related beauty products. Her book, “FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change” (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. “Today” co-host Hoda Kotb called it “a smart book for smart women.” For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.