The Changing Role of Women

Remarks by SWT President Denise Trauth to the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center

Thanks so much for inviting me to be here with you tonight. You’ve given me a fascinating topic to talk about, “The Changing Role of Women.” I suppose it’s a topic every woman in this room has thought about at one time or another, at least those of us old enough to know that roles have changed!

A friend sent me something recently that illustrates this phenomenon of changing roles. It’s an article from a July 1943 issue of Transportation magazine, an article written for male supervisors of women who were flooding into the workforce during World War II. Here are some of the suggestions on how to “select the most efficient women available and use them to the best advantage”:

“Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters. They’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard.

“When you have to use older women, try to get ones who have worked outside the home before. Older women who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting and are inclined to be fussy and cantankerous.

“General experience indicates that ‘husky’ girls—those who are just a little on the heavy side—are more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.

“Retain a physician to give each woman you hire a special physical examination for female conditions. This step not only protects the property against the possibilities of lawsuit, but reveals any female weaknesses which would make her mentally or physically unfit for the job.

“Give the female a definite day-long schedule of duties so that she’ll keep busy without bothering the management for instruction…Women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but they lack initiative in finding work.

“Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.

“Get enough size variety in operator’s uniforms so that each girl can have a proper fit. This point can’t be stressed too much in keeping women happy.”

So anyone who thinks the role of women has not changed in recent years just hasn’t been paying attention. But how has it changed?

There are the obvious:

  • Changes in families. Fewer women staying at home, fewer children born to families, more women in college.
  • Changes in law and the enforcement of existing law, involving such issues as reproductive rights, sexual harassment and domestic violence.
  • Changes in the workforce. 34% of women worked outside the home in 1950, it’s 60% today. That compares to 75% of men.
  • Changes in sports. You wouldn’t have seen Brandi Chastain — with or without her shirt — on the sports pages when I was growing up. Title IX has made a huge difference here: 30,000 women participating in intercollegiate sports in 1971 compared to 151,000 today; 300,000 girls in high school athletics in 1971, compared to 2.8 million today.
  • Changes in job compensation. Although equal-pay-for-equal-work is not a reality yet, we’re making progress. In 1979, young women made 68 cents to every dollar a young man made. Today it’s 82 cents. That’s progress.
  • And changes in what I call “where you see female faces.” Women are now in growing numbers in law offices, doctors’ offices, science labs, board rooms, the military, outer space, the ministry, Congress, the Supreme Court, faculties, and even university presidencies. We’re still working on rock and roll bands, the White House and the Augusta National Golf Club.

The biggest change, it seems to me, if you summarize all of this, is a change in opportunity, in options.

Phyllis Schlafly illustrated this beautifully the other day. (You might have guessed she’s one of my favorite commentators.) Maybe you read her column last month in the Record. She was congratulating the Augusta National Golf Club for standing up against the feminists by barring women from membership. In the column she also accused feminists of using Title IX to emasculate America. She wrote: “The feminists have been crowing that recent achievements by women athletes are the happy result of Title IX. But when a reporter asked for a comment on Title IX from Jennifer Capriati, the third-best woman tennis player in the world, she replied, ‘I have no idea what Title IX is. Sorry.’” This was Ms. Schlafly’s evidence that Title IX was not responsible for furthering female participation in sports, but to me the fact that Capriati did not know what Title IX was is an indication of how well it’s worked! Title IX — and more accurately, the changing role of women as a whole — gave Capriati opportunities she took for granted! That’s wonderful!

The changing role of women is one of changing options. My own little niece is an example. She’s in third grade. When her parents asked her about something she might like to take classes in, she said without hesitation, “Tae Kwon Do.” When I was her age, the thought of taking classes in the martial arts wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Her options are broader than mine were. Good for her. And good for us in helping to open those options for her, whether or not she ever knows what tools we used to open them.

These changing roles for women are a good thing. Of course I would think so, right?, having benefited from them immensely. That’s true but I do think I can make the case here.

Women bring a different viewpoint to problem solving that enhances the quality of the solution. Women bring a different set of issues to decision making that enhances the quality of the decision. I can make an identical case for diversity of all kinds. Faculty from the sciences and the humanities will make better curriculum decisions than scientists by themselves or humanists by themselves. A group consisting of faculty, staff, students and members of the community will come up with a better master plan for the university than faculty by themselves. And just look what a great decision can be made by a presidential search committee that comes from diverse constituencies! Okay, okay, don’t comment on that.

But you see my point. These changes are good for women; they foster growth and options. They are good for men, too; with women around the table, men can allow their noncompetitive side to emerge. And these changes are good for the whole. Better decisions, better results. The most successful companies and the healthiest institutions in the country have discovered this.

The very best environments I have worked in, and the one I work in now, are environments of balance.

Having said all of this about how women’s roles have changed, I think I have to mention some ways they haven’t changed. Oftentimes, working outside the home means that women have two fulltime jobs – the one at work and the one at home. Women, more than men, are still the keepers of the house, the planners of family events, the bill payers and errand runners. Mothers, more than fathers, are the ones who stay home with sick kids, join the PTA, plan school dances and banquets and field trips. However, this is changing. Certainly, in my own house now and at least for the last five years, my husband has been the person responsible for cooking, grocery shopping and all the other tasks that keep a house functioning. But I’m one of the fortunate ones. As a society, we have such a long way to go. Poor women have not made as much progress as have their wealthier sisters. And in some countries, and in parts of our own country, laws have changed but customs have not. Look, for example, at the political arena.

A recent story by Mary Hawkesworth, director for the Center of American Women and Politics, recounts the participation of women in the political system: And I quote: “At the outset of the 21st century, women hold only 12% of the seats in Congress, 22% of the seats in the state legislatures, 6% of the nation’s 50 governorships, 36% of the offices of lieutenant governor, 27% of other statewide elective executive offices…and 14% of the federal judiciary.” To some extent these numbers make the problem seem simple to define. In fact, it is not. Look at my own field, the media. Suffice it to say, this terrain is quite complex and complicated. Complex because there are many different jobs that women hold in media companies, and what appears to be happening in any given job category doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Complicated because when we talk about how women are portrayed in the media, there is not one definitive statement that I can make with regard to this portrayal. There is not one single image of the American woman that the media present.

And so what I want to do for the next few minutes is describe the terrain to you in all of its complicated complexity. I am not going to attempt to come to a conclusion about what this means. Rather, I hope that I will give you something to think about.

If we take a look at the employment statistics of women in the media, we see one very bright spot. Over half of all editors and reporters are women. What does this reveal? First of all, the analysis tells us that a great deal has changed since the days when women reporters and editors were restricted to the balcony of the National Press Club. You may have realized the changes that have occurred just from watching and reading the news.

What you probably haven’t thought much about, though, is the lives of women editors and reporters. A study that was done in Washington, D.C., found that in general women have fared as well as men in the news media. Assignments are equal, their stories are just as prominently displayed. Their pay is about the same. They feel equally respected.

Only one problem. The only place that they are not equal is in their personal lives: 45% of the women had never been married, compared to 22% of the men; 64% of women had never had a child, compared to 40% of the men. Incidentally, age was not a factor in marital status or childlessness.

Maybe this is changing. I love it when I see visibly pregnant women on television news programs!

When I was a young girl, Donna Reed was the role model that was presented through the electronic media. She did housework in a shirtwaist and high heels. And then Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards burst on the scene with the message that women were going to “make it after all.” Have things changed that much in the routine portrayals of women? One study that I looked at showed that two-and-a-half times more men than women were quoted in news coverage of political candidates.

A study commissioned very recently by the National Organization for Women found that males make up 90% of lead characters in programming aimed at children, 87% of interviewees on Sunday public affairs programs, and 80% of characters who have authoritative roles in the most financially successful American films.

Why does this matter? It matters because the media are major institutions of socialization. How the media portray men and women may contribute to how one views oneself.

Let’s take a look at the victim-versus-rescuer images as an example of how this socialization could be affected. A study of three California newspapers during one randomly selected week looked at photographs of individuals. It found that women — who constitute more than half of the population of California — were pictured significantly less than men in the newspapers. Moreover, women were significantly more likely to be pictured as victims as opposed to men who were more likely to be portrayed as experts or rescuers.

Now having said all this, I am sure that many of you in this room think that there should be nothing but consensus on what must be changed. But it’s not that simple. Earlier I referred to how complex this area is. One aspect of the complexity devolves from the fact that women themselves are not of one mind with regard to how they are portrayed in the media. For example, advertisers find it hard to predict whether depiction of provocative female models will be viewed by women as “sexy” or “sexist.”

A very interesting study published in the Journal of Advertising Research showed that while some advertising depictions of women have indeed changed during the last 20 years, women themselves continue to have quite diverse reactions when they view various kinds of depictions.

Three groups of women were used in this study to look at advertising that contained images of women: members of the National Organization for Women, members of the League of Women Voters, and a general sample of women. The study found that NOW and League members were significantly more critical of advertising than was the general population of women.

But even that statement makes it sound like more consensus exists among women with regard to media images than actually is the case. This same study showed that although both NOW and League members were in significantly greater agreement with the statement “Ads suggest that women don’t do important things” than were women in the general population, when it came to the statement “Ads suggest that a woman’s place is in the home,” the NOW group was in significantly greater agreement than was the League group. One last piece from this study to show that women are all over the map on this issue: The NOW sample was significantly more in agreement with the statement “I’m more sensitive to the portrayal of women in advertising than I used to be” than was the League group, which, in turn, was more in agreement than was the general population group.

Complicated and complex.

So where are we now in roles for women? Those of you who are as old as I am remember the period of time when we believed women had to act like men to succeed in careers. We even wore those little necktie things! I truly believe that women are now being accepted for what they bring to the table, accepted because of what they bring, not in spite of it. As that wonderful old feminist Bella Abzug said, “the test for whether we can hold a job should not be the arrangement of our chromosomes.” And I think as a whole, at least in this country, we are beginning to look past the chromosomes — particularly, and perhaps ironically, in the field of management. I think there is an evolution at work that may have a very real impact on women’s options. I’m referring to the emergence of “interactive” or “collaborative” leadership.

Currently women, who occupy almost half of the workforce, hold only 23% of full-time management positions and 5% of senior management positions. But the trend is in the right direction.

Collaborative leadership is characterized by four factors:

  1. encouraging participation — including people in processes;
  2. sharing power and information — keeping information flowing in two directions;
  3. enhancing the self-worth of others — giving credit, praise and recognition; and
  4. energizing others — delegating challenging work that is exhilarating and fun.

When women are managers, they — like their male counterparts — draw on what is unique in their past and bring that to the table. Not all women, but many women, naturally tend to use the skills that are characteristic of interactive or collaborative leadership. This leadership style values openness, inclusiveness, consensus-building and participation.

Collaborative leadership is quite in vogue today, particularly in the realm of managing “knowledge workers” — people who are valued for their intellect, their ability to assimilate knowledge and their creativity. The convergence of the existing media technologies with the Internet-based companies is leading to more enterprises dominated by knowledge workers. These workers demand a work environment that resonates with the skills that many women managers quite naturally bring to the table.

Let me end by saying that I have great hope for the progress of women because we have come a long way. To illustrate just how far we have come, I’d like to share something with you that Vikki Bynum in our History Department passed on to me, something that will remind us just how dramatically attitudes and roles have changed in the last hundred years. The article quotes a medical journal written in the late nineteenth century, not too long before Southwest Texas State Normal School opened its doors to a mainly female student body with a faculty that was mostly women. The author, a respected member of the Harvard Medical School faculty, asserted that college was bad for women because the brain and the ovaries could not work well simultaneously. He argued that women’s bodies are more complicated than men’s (okay, we’ll give him that!) and this difference meant that young girls needed time to develop, free from the drain of intellectual activity. Developing girls, he said, were physically and emotionally damaged by an educational challenge that drew energy to the brain and away from the reproductive organs. Instead of attending college or even high school, he said, the time between menarche and marriage should be spent at home learning domestic skills such as making beds and sewing, which encouraged the essential “rhythmic periodicity” of women.

So, if you think we haven’t come a long way, baby, think again!

I do appreciate your asking me here tonight. Thank you for your kind attention.