The subject of women at work is fascinating and can be explored endlessly, because it is so nuanced and complicated and of course can be overlayed with culture, socio-economics, geographic location, generation, religion, education levels; and different eras in history to name just a few. What is interesting to me, however, is an emergence of war amongst women as apposed to for women, by women or against women, as it has more obviously appeared in the past.

There was a time, not so long ago, where all women outwardly aspired to having the glass slipper: Cinderella’s dream of marriage to Prince Charming, children, devotion to a husband and family, devotion to a community; and devotion to women’s groups like sewing and book clubs on a domestic scale; and to organisations like the Daughters of the American Revolution and Black Sash in South Africa, on a larger more political scale.

  • So when was this time exactly?
  • Why were women so connected to the idea of the glass slipper?
  • What did women really get out of it?

The history of feminism is complicated. The idea of feminism (in my opinion, according to what feminism stood for) started a lot longer ago than one might imagine. Like most movements, people don’t always agree on when they started and of course largely their ‘beginnings’ will be influenced by what one’s notion of what it’s purpose was, what scale it was operating on, how many people it touched and what it achieved in terms of its exposure. From a sociological perspective one can see evidence of feminist thinking as far back as the 17th century, but we are all aware that the plight of women is something that continues to exist even in to the 21st century. Due to the significance of socio-political and socio-economic events, the role of feminism has differed and the movement has looked different because of different reasons for its existence through-out different times in history. For example, the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War would be two major examples of events that had an impact on women and the feminist movement and the role of women in society. I think the latter was particularly significant because of the lack of men around. Women realised they were perfectly capable of doing “men’s work”. This idea is represented by Rosie the Riveter – the female icon who taught American women they could ‘do it’ during the war. I think that this encouraging icon really changed the mind-sets of women across all classes; and even though after the war, when governments in the 1950’s and 1960’s actively encouraged women to go back to being ‘good women’ doing ‘women’s work’, a seed for change had been planted. However, it was not really until the 1970’s, when the daughters of these women were grown up, that we saw a mass introduction of women in the job market and in tertiary level education. So to answer my first question, I think most women outwardly aspired to the glass slipper right up until the 1970’s because it was the right thing to do.

Women were connected to the glass slipper for lots of reasons. They were expected to want children; and if they didn’t, they were a weird and if they didn’t catch a man before 25, they were likely going to be an old maid, which meant their brother or father would probably end up looking after them. Largely this was so because politics and legislation (which was still run by men) and of course social convention prevented women from daring to not want the glass slipper. Even in the 1970’s amongst highly educated women, more than half believed they should be a wife and mother and then a career women.

What did women get out of the glass slipper? In the past: protection, security, social recognition, personal satisfaction, biological fulfillment… lots of things I am sure. But at a cost.

But the real tragedy for me is this: some women of course had to go to work whether they wanted to or not. So where as before, women across class all had something in common (the glass slipper) after the 1970’s women’s individual aspirations were allowed to be expressed and I think that’s where the divide began. I think that this is where things began to change in terms of the war amongst women. For those with a choice (the elite, the highly educated, those aspiring to jobs in professional services, for example) things had changed by the early 1980’s. Roughly 85% of those who graduated from top universities wanted top notch careers as well as children. I think for this class of women, choice, good education, opportunity for expansion and growth up the corporate ladder, wealth, child-care and equality in a man’s world is hard, but possible.

Those whose lives haven’t changed are women whose work does not require a tertiary level education. Amongst firefighters, mechanics, electricians, construction workers, machine operators, service-level blue collar workers, only 1% were women in 1960. That number had increased to just over 1% by 1983 and to just 2% by 1998. The more equality we want for women, the more inequality is created amongst women along class lines.

So there are more women in the workplace now than men, in terms of numbers. There are more female university graduates than male, but the number of women in decision-making positions is still proportionately low. There are still gender-based job choices for men and women.  The cost of child care is high, globally, and women are still more likely than their husband to give up their careers in order to parent. There are an increasing number of single mothers who don’t have a choice but to work.

This whole post started because I read an article about Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, who was being accused of ‘never having done a days work in her life’. What would have been more accurate would have been to say that Ann Romney has not had a paid job or career, but as a mother of five children I would imagine she has worked extremely hard and arguably has had the most difficult job of all.

And this is my point. In today’s workplace women have moved out of the notion that the glass slipper is all that is available to us. This is a good thing. But it is not to say that women don’t want the glass slipper, because most do. This puts huge pressure on us because, particularly for Generation X and Y women, women don’t want to sacrifice bringing up their children for their careers. So this will have an impact on the workplace, where women will want opportunities to return to work after having taken extended maternity leave. Women will want to work from home. Women will choose companies who ‘make room for motherhood and family’.

Are you prepared for this? If you do not want to lose your high caliber female talent, what are you doing to make it attractive for them to return after giving birth and to stay whilst they are bringing up children? How are you going to assist women in being able to juggle children and commitment to the company? Can you shift your mindset into a more collaborative, inclusive and flexible way of working?


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