It wasn’t that long ago that a woman working in an office was considered laughable. Society’s attitudes to women have changed tremendously since the beginnings of an organised feminist movement during the early 20th century. Under the rigorous conditions of total war caused by both World Wars, women around the UK and America were called on to take the jobs of men that had been conscripted or volunteered. After feminists campaigned for (and eventually got) their right to vote and other legal rights between the wars, an overt feminist movement laid dormant for decades. Progress was still happening, with many women being able to hold on to their jobs after marriage, which was seen as the end of a woman’s working career by society.
Within the countercultural movements of the 1960s, feminism was revived. Feminist movements tend to be separated by ‘waves’, with the 1st wave focusing on the individual legal rights of women, such as the right to vote, right to education, equal property rights and so on. However, the rights of women in the workplace, and her right to work at all, weren’t a key focus of the First Wave. The Second Wave, on the other hand, was focused on a range of issues that women faced which included the right of a woman to be employed, or own her own business, or her right to be paid equally, her right to paid maternity leave, her right to not be fired for becoming pregnant and other discriminatory practices that were common in the 60s.
Since the gradual opening up of the workplace to women over the last 50 years, it seems that women have all they need. But it’s clear that the glass ceiling is still present for women. In most of western Europe, women’s pay and access to higher positions has gone from minimal (pre-1960s) to almost as good as a man’s possible wage and promotion prospects. But the key word is ‘almost’. There still exists a pay gap between women and men by as much as 16% in western Europe, while women can earn as little as 75 cents to the dollar in countries like Bulgaria.
Other controversies that have cropped up include enforced dress codes that force women to wear impractical clothes and shoes and increased parental leave for both sexes. When business owners complain about things like maternity leave, they usually point to losing money, although studies have indicated that further gender equality in the workplace tends to improve profitability, and ‘unleashing women’s full potential could be worth £23 billion a year to the Exchequer’. 23 billion pounds isn’t something to be scoffed at.
The role of women in the workplace is still being shaped and has to deal with unique challenges, but the curtain is rapidly closing on the days when mistreating female employees is acceptable.