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Despite Progress, Women Still Face a Workplace Culture of Second Place

Debrah Charatan
Debrah Charatan

Sitting quietly at the table where women now have a seat is a poor use of that chair.

The news about women in the workplace these days seems, at best, bleak. Sexual harassment abounds, male-run companies get venture capital at 16 times the rate of female-run companies, wage inequality still exists, and only 6 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women.

It's easy to think, then, that there has been little or no progress for working women over the past 50 years. But that's definitely inaccurate, and an oversimplification. Many of the legal barriers to working, and receiving equal pay and treatment, are now part of history. What we are left with are the more subtle (insidious, even) troubles rooted deep in corporate culture.

What are some of the problems women no longer face?

On July 2, 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Title VII of the act prohibits "employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." That meant women could no longer be turned down for a job simply because they were women. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 had already made it illegal to pay men and women substantially different wages for the same work.

The legal framework allowed women to hold companies accountable for discriminatory practices. This set the stage for sweeping changes.

For instance, the national flight attendant union, ALSSA (which had split from the pilots union in 1962), urged the New York State Commission on Human Rights (NYSCHR) to launch an informal investigation into age discrimination in airline policies. At the time it was common for flight attendants to be terminated at the age of 32 or 35. In 1966, NYSCHR issued a blanket ruling against age requirements for flight attendants, stating that age was not a "bona fide occupation qualification." 

Another battle, one over marriage bans for flight attendants, went on for years as women got married, were fired, and sued airlines including Delta, American and Braniff for discrimination. It wasn't until 1968, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued three individual rulings that set permanent precedents on airline age and marriage policies, that age and marriage restrictions on stewardesses' employment was definitively declared illegal sex discrimination under Title VII.

But imagine trying to start a business, or even go about conducting business, without a credit card. In the '60s, banks could legally refuse to issue a credit card to an unmarried woman, and could require married women to have their husbands co-sign for the card. It took the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act to change that.

One other hurdle that was knocked down in the '70s was higher education. Many jobs, especially white-collar career track professions, require a college education. Yet, in the early '70s, many of the best colleges and universities only admitted men. True, there was a system of "sister schools," such as Radcliffe (which was associated with Harvard), that provided solid educations. But the networking and career cachet of an Ivy League degree was out of reach.

That changed over the decades, with Dartmouth admitting women in 1971, Harvard in '77 and Columbia in '81. Women have now outnumbered men in American colleges for more than 35 years.

So, with access to the best education, laws and legal precedent in our back pockets and credit cards in our wallets, what is it that's holding women back? How is it possible that there are not more female-owned businesses and women in the C-suite?

The answer, as any answer that deals with discrimination and corporate America, is "it's complicated."

A culture of second place

Women in the workplace face the same double standards and double-edged swords that women face in most aspects of their lives. For instance, appearance. Showing up to work dressed casually or comfortably, such as the reporter who wore a sleeveless dress on Capitol Hill this past summer, leads to comments about "appropriate" clothing choices. In the case of the reporter, she was banned from the House Chamber.

But dressing up for work, especially for young women, can make women the target of inappropriate comments about their appearances. As the #MeToo movement proves, sometimes the bad behavior of colleagues doesn't stop with talk.

Even if it does, how can a woman trust colleagues who think it's OK to discuss the length of her skirt or the height of her heels? In order to excel, women need to share ideas, progress and work triumphs openly. Sitting in a meeting with a smirking teammate is hardly conducive to that.

Speaking of talking, communication is another area where women can't seem to win. To rise in the ranks, women need to be able to advocate for themselves and their ideas. But, in 2016, a Lean In/McKinsey & Company survey of 132 companies and 34,000 employees found that "women who negotiated for promotions were 30 percent more likely than men to be labeled intimidating, bossy or aggressive." The New York Times article that cites the survey also has personal anecdotes from top-level women who have faced the "intimidating and aggressive" label.

In addition to being called out for direct, clear communication, women are still second-guessed, no matter how well they express themselves, simply because they are women. A recent story about the horrible week a man had when he switched to using his female co-worker's email and signature is one of thousands of anecdotal proofs of this problem.

Then there's home-life imbalances. This, as much as office dynamics, affects women's ability to move up the corporate ladder. The Lean In survey found that, on average, 54 percent of women do all or most of the household work, compared to 22 percent of men. This gap grows when couples have children. Women with a partner and children are 5.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to do all or most of the household work. Add to that the fact that women are still disproportionately the caregivers for kids, aging parents, ill grandparents and any other family member that needs help and the ability to ace Q4 goals is hampered further. 

Continuing the fight for true workplace equality

So, how to get from where we are now to where we thought we'd be by now?

Learn from past lessons and duplicate what worked. Over the decades we've learned, again and again, that it's essential for women to band together and support each other. Whether by simply serving as mentors to the next generation or in bigger, more formal ways like the newly launched networking program for women seeking venture capital, it's women working together that will take us further up the corporate ladder.

We must push for legislation that supports equality, but also addresses the needs of women in all roles: parental leave, family leave, access to daycare and long-term care. Many companies do only what the government mandates, so we need to make sure the government is listening to women.

Speak out, and don't stop just because someone talks over you, interrupts or thinks you're being aggressive. Sitting quietly at the table where we now have a seat is a poor use of that chair.

I remember the times when only men could be CEOs and have credit cards. I launched a career and a business, despite the obstacles. Achieving success in the corporate world is possible, even probable, for women if we continue to work together and face the challenges head-on.

Image Credit: Atstock Productions
Debrah Charatan
Debrah Charatan Member
Debrah Lee Charatan is a real estate veteran and philanthropist with nearly 40 years of industry experience. Charatan is the president of BCB Property Management Inc., a full-service multifamily and mixed-use real estate firm in New York City.