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March 20, 2013

Path Breakers and Womens Gender Roles

An excellent Paper 3 example of connecting the personal (micro) to the collective (macro). Winter 2013

Margaret is an 84 year old mother of five, grandmother of five and if you ask her to describe herself she wouldn't lead with either of those facts. Margaret will tell you, "I am a chemist."

Kathy is my mother, a working single parent, when she speaks of her career it is with a list of disappointments about the lack of opportunities she had. When she describes herself Kathy starts with, "I am a mom."

As a young working woman in the US today I struggle to balance work, school and a personal life. How should I describe myself? What is my role in society and am I defined by that role?

After taking this Sociology course I started thinking about the role of women in our society today. I think about the struggles of the women in the workplace before me, about the fight for access to the same education that men got. What would it be like to live in a society like Afghanistan where education of female children isn't valued? I take for granted that I have access to education. I started to talk to the women in my life about their experiences in how they have been defined by society and how they have fought against definition and tried to do their best to take down barriers to opportunities to women and girls in education and the workplace. I have a different view of glass ceilings, social roles and discrimination than I did when I started this course.

First, Margaret's story; Born in 1929, she is a child of the depression. Her story is an amazing one for women in that time but also remarkable in modern terms, which causes me to ask the question, have we really "come a long way baby?" Margaret graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chemistry. Margaret's college career was a constant battle to get the same access to courses and opportunities as the men in the university. It was rare that there were other women in class and when recruiters came to campus to interview candidates she was often told that there were no openings for women. They would only be interviewing male candidates. Margaret went to her 65 year high school reunion last summer. She met up with her biggest academic competition from high school, Dick. Dick was very successful; he had been a Senior Vice President at DuPont. He too had a BA in Chemistry from the University of Iowa. Margaret told me of one day in their junior year of High School she was called in to talk to the principal. She had been elected Student Class President. The first time a girl had won the class vote. She was very excited and then the principal "asked" her if she would stand down and allow Dick to be President because it would be good for his college entrance applications. Margaret still can't believe that she didn't say "no way, it's mine, I worked hard for this." But that wouldn't have been socially acceptable at the time. Women didn't challenge authoritative men and certainly stood aside to let their male counterparts succeed. Margaret had better grades than Dick all through college. Their lives took very different turns after college.

When I talked to Margaret about how Universities have changed over the years she laughed and said that when she was at Iowa if you took a picture of the College of Chemistry you would see her, one black man and a sea of white males. That wasn't reflective of the society it was a policy enforced by the University. The sciences weren't for women and the only people lower than women in the pecking order were African Americans. When Margaret told me that, I couldn't help but wonder how many times I have heard that Math and Science is for boys and Liberal Arts are for girls. How often do young women hear the message from societal role models that smart women do go in to science fields? Margaret went on to work at Dow Chemical where she continued to struggle against the stigma of being the only woman in a career dominated by men. When she became pregnant with her first child there were no accommodations for mothers it was expected that she would retire from working outside the home and be a full time mother. After all, her husband was a successful Chemical Engineer, why would she work, that would be a sign that her husband wasn't able to support their family. It wouldn't be because Margaret enjoyed her work and had a curious mind. Her husband would be the Vice President, she would be a mother.

I look around at my work place and the women that I work with that are engineers, chemists and factory supervisors. That we women are the minority is not surprising, the company is forced in to compliance by State and Federal laws to not discriminate against us. Were it not for a male mentor I wouldn't have my job. A male counterpart and I were hired on the same day, neither of us had manufacturing experience. I had supervisory experience, he didn't. My management is often surprised that a woman wants to work in a dirty production environment. Were it not for the government regulations how many of us would be in the facility? While women like Margaret worked really hard to change the path in Universities and the workplace, there is still little equity in how society really treats and views educated working women. My boss recently asked me why I didn't want to settle down and pop out a couple of kids like his wife did. I have a lot of questions I'd like to ask his wife, that's not where I would start.

In 1988 the company my mother, Kathy, worked for, lost a sexual discrimination lawsuit that was publicized nationally. The company was forced to pay out 12 million dollars to be used for women's education amongst employees. My mother jumped on this opportunity and went back to school. Though the company was forced to pay for her education they were not forced to give her the time off to purse this education. For her this meant that in order to break t into the male dominated world of engineering she would have to balance a forty hour work week, a four year old and a full class load. Even with the odds against her my mother managed to complete her schooling, keep her job and obtain a position in the facilities engineering department. I didn't turn out too bad either. When I asked her about how she felt society viewed her choices she responded that no matter where she turned in the 80s there was someone there to criticize her decision to leave a bad marriage and to work and go to school. Who did she think she was going to be, she was just a single mother she wasn't going to get anywhere up the career ladder. She should start looking for a man to take care of her and her daughter.

What a different societal view of the working woman we have today than we had just 30 years ago. It's no longer an anomaly to see women working alongside men. It isn't unusual to see women like me supervising an all male crew. I did an informal survey with a group of my friends to hear how they describe themselves. It was so interesting that out of 10 female friends they all started with their marital status, if they had children and then their job. The 6 of the 7 male friends I asked all started with their jobs, then marital status and finally the number of children. The male friend that was the outlier in the survey is extremely religious and started with his faith, job, marital status and then number of children. This micro-society of my friends defines themselves by traditional gender roles. We all work, we all have a marital status, and what does it mean for our society if the women don't place their work at the same level of self-identification as the men do. Does that mean we don't take our work to be as important as our marital status? I think of myself as a working woman that is single, not a single woman that is working until I find a husband. Have women in my social group given up fighting for an equal place in the work world? Just because they describe themselves differently do they think of themselves differently? It would be really interesting to see if the married women in my group of friends also fall in to traditional home roles. Who cooks? Who cleans? Do only the husbands mow the lawn? Have we really redefined a woman's role in society as equal to a man's when so few women are College Deans or CEOs of Corporations?

It seems to me that the road to equality is still being built. Women like Margaret and Kathy cleared the path and set the trail but we women still need to do a lot of paving for the women behind us and extend this road to the next exit. Margaret and Kathy are two of the most influential women in my life. I am Kathy's daughter and Margaret's friend. I am a woman that works hard, wants to learn and enjoys a good time. I think they are both proud of how I describe me and would tell me to forget what society thinks and get on with making my goals come true.