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Women’s Rights: Reckoning with the Past in the Present

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By Cynthia Gentile, J.D., SHRM-CP Faculty Member, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
CJ Sherman, Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Before 1964, it was essentially legal to discriminate against women. And even decades after the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, women continue to face obstacles. In this episode, Cynthia Gentile talks to APU professor CJ Sherman about sexual discrimination, unequal pay, and social constructs that hinder women’s careers. Learn how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women who have left the workforce to care for children. Also hear about four women who have broken through barriers to pursue careers in the legal field and law enforcement and paving the way for future generations of women.

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Cynthia Gentile: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Cynthia Gentile. Today I’m excited to chat with professor CJ Sherman. CJ is a full-time faculty member at American Public University teaching in the School of Security and Global Studies. Thanks for joining me today, CJ.

CJ Sherman: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Cynthia Gentile: Since I started this podcast about a year ago, I’ve been fortunate to welcome some incredible women as guests on the show. I’ve talked with CEOs, government officials, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and servicemembers about how their personal and professional worlds have been upended by the pandemic, and how that chaotic time has shaped their work-life balance in the days since.

In each conversation, it became increasingly clear to me that there are myriad stories of extraordinary women, women who affect change in all sorts of ways, but are often unknown. Those stories inspire and motivate me to work toward my personal and professional goals, and I’m hopeful they will do the same for our listeners. CJ, I’m thrilled that we are connecting today in what I hope will be the first of many inspiring conversations.

CJ Sherman: Thanks, Cynthia. It’s great that you said about being inspired and motivated, because one of my motivations in doing this is recognizing that we all feel strengthened by witnessing the journey of others, particularly women seeing other women, who may not see the same level of representation in numerous jobs.

And it’s great that we’re seeing so many firsts, I think a lot in the news now we hear the first person to do this, the first person to do that, that is a woman. And it’s great that we’re seeing that, but it will be even better when we don’t feel the need to highlight that because there already have been so many women in these roles.

Finally, on this point, I really appreciate that you noted the term work-life balance. And it’s worth to note that we rarely see that term used with respect to men and their careers, but we think of it in terms of women and how could they have children and their families, and also have a career. And men don’t seem to similarly have that type of burden as to how are they going to manage it all.

Cynthia Gentile: I couldn’t agree more. And I think that in this first episode, we’re going to set the stage a little bit to provide some framework for the conversations to come. So CJ, can you give us a high level overview of some of the legal, or societal obstacles that women leaders face?

CJ Sherman: Sure. So we know that before 1964, in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it was essentially legal to discriminate against women, ads openly said that we are looking for men only. We know that women were denied access to education. And we also know that before 1978, there was the ability to openly discriminate against women who were pregnant. So, in 1978, we had the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which is actually in response to a Supreme Court case that said that pregnancy discrimination was not a form of sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

And 1978 and 1964 isn’t that long ago, and certainly those laws removed some obstacles, made it a little easier, but we know that all the obstacles didn’t immediately go away, like when you’re driving and all of these accidents are cleared, but somehow, you’re still sitting there, and you’re wondering why you’re still sitting there.

And similarly, here we’ve removed a lot of obstacles in creating these laws and policies and companies have them to prevent sex discrimination, local governments, state governments, and, of course, at the federal level as I noted, but yet we know that sex discrimination continues.

I wanted to point out that in 2017, a Pew Research survey said about four in 10 working women said that they had experienced gender discrimination at work. Recently there’ve been a lot in the news about tech firms, including Uber, Google, video game companies, there was one called Activision Blizzard, for those of you who are video gamers, all of these have had either lawsuits or settlements regarding sexism, sexual harassment, and outright sexual abuse within the workplace. And some really crude behavior taking place in places where there are people who are highly educated and yet this type of behavior persists. Here we are in 2021 and this behavior has persisted for all of these years.

We’ve made some great strides, but there’s still these problems that persist in companies. And a lot of it comes from these entrenched social norms and sexist language that continues to persist right from the moment we’re in school and children. So children are organized into boys, girls, boys do this, girls do that. Boys are often permitted to engage in certain behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated among girls, girls are taught quickly, or learn quickly, that certain behavior that boys can do, they could not engage in. And they’re also taught to perhaps not show their true colors in terms of how smart they are, or how good they perhaps are at a sport, because that’ll be seen as not ladylike, not good for girls to do that.

There was a study that even showed that girls typically see politicians when they’re very young, that they could be women, but as they start to get older, they just see that people in leadership roles are men and they continue thinking that, they continue to think that only men could have these types of leadership roles.

We know that in the seventies, things have changed and we saw a lot of development in terms of being able to make contracts and get credit cards and things like that. So a lot of changes, women entering educational institutions at higher rates. And we also saw a real push to get the Equal Rights Amendments passed, but unfortunately that was not successful despite, I think it was 38 states coming on board.

[Podcast: Efforts to Enshrine Equal Rights in the Constitution Pick Up Speed]

Cynthia Gentile: We are at about 38 states now, but it didn’t happen until long after the deadline had passed. And, of course, there’s both activities, both in the courts, as well as in the legislature to move the ERA forward, but it’s in a holding pattern right now. We don’t really know if that deadline will be waived and therefore the amendment will become a part of our Constitution, or if we’ll have to go back and go through a ratification process again.

CJ Sherman: We also know that without that amendment, it continues to have these obstacles then that women are kept in this second-class status in terms of how they’re viewed for pay, promotions, and how they’re viewed by society. We know that in just about every sector women receive unequal pay and are often discriminated against and don’t have the same level of opportunities that men do.

Some things to think about in terms of women getting ahead. So we know that more women have entered politics as of late and assumed political leadership positions, but yet we also know that they face more personal online attacks than their similar male politicians. And some of this online abuse can certainly lead to violence. We know that Equal Pay Day, and it’s usually in the end of March. And the reason it’s held then is because that’s the extra months it would take for women to make the same amount that men make. So men made that amount of money in December, it would take women extra time to make that money.

We know that while we’ve made some gains over the years, women still earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, and, of course, that’s regarding White women, women of color still are at about 61 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts are paid. And, of course, it’s worse for Latinas.

We’ve gotten better, but there’s still a differentiation. And I know people might say, well, there’s all sorts of reasons, particularly women leaving the workforce to raise a family, but it’s way more complex than that. And it’s not just for that reason alone. A lot of the times people think this pay differential is more concentrated in the lower-wage jobs, but that’s not true. We know that in just about every profession from accountants to  doctors, to  lawyers, women make less money.

Cynthia Gentile: Right. I agree that we have a lot of room for improvement. And it’s amazing to think about that most of the studies that you’re referencing, or that we are able to look at right now today in 2021, aren’t taking into account what has happened since the COVID pandemic. We’re just beginning to see any type of real academic, or industry studies around the effects of the pandemic on pay equality and on women in the workforce, because as we know, we don’t even need the studies to see that it’s the women who generally left the workforce to stay home with children when the schools closed. And that could be because of pay just as sheer dollars and cents who can “afford” to actually leave the work force, it can also just be because of entrenched norms about caretaker roles.

And this isn’t even just with children, it’s also with aging parents. A lot of women in the workforce are in what we call the sandwich generation, they’re taking care of both their children and their parents. And the pandemic just highlighted so many of these things that were bubbling under the surface and maybe occasionally got to the news, but didn’t really make it to a top story in anyone’s mind all that often. And now here we are about two years, close to two years since the start of the pandemic, and those effects are just going to last and permeate into the work culture for years to come.

CJ Sherman: Indeed. And so in addition to pay equity, we have sex discrimination, we have sexual harassment. And then we have also just the more subtle parts of the workplace, or just in life. So sexual harassment could take place in the workplace, but then also women encounter this just in their daily lives.

There was a study just recently just regarding public transit, riding public transit, and how that creates obstacles for women in terms of the harassment that they endure. And also the fact that some of them might not feel that they’re safe to ride transit at night. And that may mean then that they can’t take another job, or a particular job that they wanted to take.

Cynthia Gentile: I have 14-year-old twin daughters, who are very aware of all of those concerns and who have been catcalled and who are aware of what might be a safer parking space versus a less safe parking space, more parking in a well-lit area or riding public transportation with friends versus with a male friend, versus a female friend. It’s not something that even the younger women are immune to at all.

CJ Sherman: No, in fact, the CDC has found that one in five female high school students experience gender-based violence. So some type of dating violence. So that coupled with you live your life in a pattern to stay safe and something that men don’t have to think about on a daily basis.

Cynthia Gentile: And all of these things lead directly to decisions around employment, career, education, and just generally aspirations for your life.

CJ Sherman: Exactly. And then there are just some of the more subtle things that I think I started talking about and just at work. I’m sure every woman can tell a story on around how they were constantly interrupted at a meeting, or they came up with a great idea only to have a man say that same idea 20 minutes later, and everyone says, “Well, that’s a terrific idea.” Or being explained something to a woman in a condescending manner, or thinking if there’s a male and female there and someone coming up to those two people thinking that obviously the woman is not in charge when in fact the woman is in charge, or the woman is leading this, or the woman is the manager. It goes back to our socialization, we’re trained to think that it is the man in charge.

If I told you that I was in an elevator with several people, a cable internet installer, a movie director, a construction worker, a CIA operative, an army veteran, an economist, a heart surgeon. I’m sure a lot of you would be picturing me in the elevator with men. But, of course, all of these can be women, but yet if we say any of these types of professions, we’re thinking of a man. And so, changing the way we socialize our children, but continuing in some ways a pushback into, this is not how women should always be seen, and this is not always how men should be seen.

And when we think of women in certain jobs, they’re typically in lower-paying jobs. In general, historically women are undervalued economically. So when we think of women in jobs, if I told you I saw a receptionist, you’d probably be thinking of a woman. If I told you I went to see a daycare worker, you’re probably thinking of a woman, but not some of these other jobs that I previously mentioned.

Cynthia Gentile: And the statistics bear this out in that many of these professions are male dominated, and there are many reasons for that, but I would suggest that sometimes the statistics support those assumptions as much as they pain me to make.

CJ Sherman: It’s worth noting also that this isn’t just an American issue, this is something that is global. We know that we have our problems here, but, of course, we could look at other countries where the obstacles and the problems and discrimination and serious violence that women confront is much more extreme. So places like Afghanistan. So there’s more work to be done, not just here, but globally.

And it’s interesting to note a United Nations Global report that close to 90% of all people have some form of bias, gender bias against women. So, that’s a huge statistic. So it’s not just men who have bias against women, but often women themselves, because we are socialized in a certain way. We are put in boxes as about what professions or things we can and can’t do.

We hear a lot about a lot of firsts, a lot of women moving into jobs that they’ve never been in before. And that’s great. We have nine governors who are women now, but, of course, when you think of how many governors there are that number seems incredibly low.

We know in the judiciary, women make up around only about 30% of the representation of the judiciary. We know that in the Supreme Court there’s been 121 Supreme Court justices and there’s only been five Supreme Court justices, the latest being Amy Coney Barrett.

So, we’re getting there, but we still have a long way to go. And, of course, the representation of women of color in the judiciary, or in other professions is even lower than the statistic I just gave you. So there’s still an incredible amount of unequal-ness, and even the number of Senators who are women is exceedingly low compared to the population.

Cynthia Gentile: And that reminds me of a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she was asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough? And I believe her answer was when there are nine. Because for how many years and decades and centuries where there nine men? So it certainly is worth remembering that it stands out to us and we count the women in a specific way because it is new. And just as we opened this conversation, it’s a first and the exciting thing will be when the first is less spectacular and we can just have it as a given that there is balance and representation. CJ, thank you so much for helping frame our discussion of women leaders.

We have to remember how far we’ve come. And I think that, that does bring me to a point that I just wanted to mention this landmark case of Bradwell v. Illinois, which was decided in, I believe 1873. And in this case, the United States Supreme Court held that a state could exclude a woman from the practice of law simply because of her gender. And in Justice Bradley’s concurrence, he cited the importance of maintaining the “respective spheres of a man and a woman,” with women performing the duties of motherhood and wife in accordance with “the law of the creator.”

CJ Sherman: Yeah, it’s an interesting case. And, sadly, it was decided eight-one, that is, it wasn’t even close in permitting her admission to the bar. Justice Bradley also noted “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy, which belongs to the female sex evidently unfit for many of the occupations of civil life.”

While we could smile and say that’s unbelievable that he said that, that kind of sentiment is in some way rings true today. We see this in sports, or even certain professions as I noted at the beginning of our discussion, that continues to be male dominated. We may not use this type of language, we still often think of it, that’s not a profession for a woman, or if a woman is seeking to be in that role, for example, to try to be the CEO, or the head manager, it’s unlikely that she is going to get into that role, given that a woman has never been in that role.

Cynthia Gentile: Yeah, that’s why it’s so important to move past the celebration of the firsts, as exciting as they are, and actually think about it being just more normalized. So who came after Ms. Bradwell? When did we finally get to the point where women were generally admitted to the practice of law?

CJ Sherman: It’s interesting to note her two children, actually a boy and a girl, they actually became lawyers. And at the prompting of her husband, apparently, the Supreme Court of Illinois and the United States Supreme Court did grant her admission to their bars, but she died just a few years later, actually never ended up practicing.

And it’s also interesting to note that she wasn’t necessarily doing something radical. She wanted to practice law with her husband. She was going to be supporting her husband in his practice. So that’s a point too, that she was doing something in some ways pretty traditional, but she laid the foundation for other women to fight to practice law. And one of those women was Belva Lockwood.

Cynthia Gentile: Tell me about Belva.

CJ Sherman: Belva was really active in fighting for women’s rights, including women’s suffrage. She graduated from law school, became one of the first female lawyers, this is back in late 1800s, and she in 1879 petitioned Congress, she was able to practice before the United States Supreme Court. She became the first woman to do this.

And interesting enough, many consider her the first woman to run for president. She ran on a ticket called the National Equal Rights Party. She actually met Susan B. Anthony, and was inspired to continue her career and do more to help women and to practice law. She became known as an advocate for women’s issues. She spoke about bill in 1872 for equal pay, for federal employees. She did mostly issues regarding discrimination. She did draft an anti-discrimination bill. She also argued a case before the Supreme Court.

So, as I said, she really paved the way, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t like there was a flood of women after her. She was one of just handful of women who were able to achieve this. And interestingly, there are some places named after her now seen as a woman who did something first. And, of course, she’s in the Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Some of the other women that I think would be interesting to talk about is Eunice Roberta Hunton Carter. She was born in 1899 and she was with us until 1970. She was one of New York’s first female African-American lawyers, and one of the first prosecutors of color in the United States. And what’s really interesting about her is she worked with District Attorney Thomas Dewey, who later went on to become governor, in many ways thanks to her.

She was the one who orchestrated, put together this huge prostitution racketeering case against a well-known mobster, Charles Luciano. And she helped bring him down. He was convicted and he was also eventually deported, but she was the one who masterminded all of this. And it was, of course, Dewey who got the accolades, but she was the one behind the scenes doing all of this. And a couple of fun facts regarding her, in addition to all the amazing achievements that she had, I don’t know if some of our listeners may know that series, “Boardwalk Empire.”

Cynthia Gentile: Sure, I know that one.

CJ Sherman: And there was a character in it that was a composite of her. And she was this prosecutor in the show in the 1920s. And a lot of people thought this was preposterous that they would have this in the movie, a woman of color, prosecutor thinking like, well, that never happened. I realize it’s just a show, but why would they do that? That’s so unrealistic. But, of course, it wasn’t unrealistic. She was a real person and really did this, but, of course, she was paid significantly less than any of the men she was working alongside. She was the only woman working in the prosecutor’s office, the only woman of color. And another interesting point is her grandson, Steven Carter, went on to become a lawyer and he ended up clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Cynthia Gentile: Wow. That’s quite a legacy.

CJ Sherman: Definitely. And definitely someone who inspired someone to move forward in their life and to go on to do great things. So, the other woman I wanted to just note, and again, we’re speaking about all these women briefly. My hope is that everyone takes the time perhaps to look up some of these women and learn about them in more detail. And, of course, the good news is that there are dozens of these women that none of us have ever heard of. And, of course, that’s the bad news is, we’ve never heard of these women. Many of us could name many male leaders who have accomplished great things, but I’m sure a few of us could name women who did similarly terrific things and accomplishments and helped our country move forward in terms of issues regarding sexism and racism that is correcting those injustices.

So, this other woman is Karen Hastie Williams, and she went to school in Philadelphia in the fifties and another circle back to Thurgood Marshall. He was her godfather. And she went on to become the first Black woman hired as a clerk on the Supreme Court. And she worked for?

Cynthia Gentile: Thurgood Marshall.

CJ Sherman: Exactly. She attended law school. She was one of the first women of color to make a partner at a large law firm, this was in Washington D.C. And interesting also that she went on in her career to help victims of terrorism, that is, she drafted legislation to help people sue these countries so they could win compensation.

Her mark on us as a society is viewed in that not only the work she did in terms of mentoring and the first that she’s accomplished and, of course, working for Thurgood Marshall, but her legacy in helping victims of terrorism win compensation.

And the last woman I wanted to talk about was Penny Harrington, keeping in our realm of speaking of women who are all in somehow associated in the legal field. And, by the way, Ms. Williams, who I just spoke of, and Penny Harrington, they both recently passed away, but Penny Harrington was the Chief of the Portland, Oregon police. This was in the 1980s. And she was the first woman to lead a major U.S. police department.

And she has just an incredible story of what she overcame. We could certainly imagine that the women who were practicing law had many challenges to confront, such as being in the courtroom and clerks assuming that she was the plaintiff or the defendant, as opposed to the lawyer.

But Penny Harrington had particular challenges because there were so few women in the police force. And given that being a police officer was such a male-dominated profession, the inequality and the discrimination that she had to confront was really astonishing, and that she stuck with it. Many women at this time didn’t stick with it because the pressure was simply too much to continue. She was actually named by Harvard Law School as one of the most 10 influential women. This was back in the 1980s.

She was constantly in this battle. She particularly felt like she was in definitely a boys-only club. She made her way from being a police officer to a detective, to a Sergeant, later becoming a Captain. And then, of course, shattering the highest ceiling becoming a Chief, but her tenure there didn’t last very long. She was only there about a year and a half. A lot of the men complained that they didn’t want to work for a woman, that their wives would be uncomfortable with that, that she would always side with women, women who was another police officer, or a woman who was someone that they were investigating.

But she took on all of these people and worked hard in her job to achieve change, things like getting rid of the height requirement that prevented so many women from becoming police officers. She even got them to change the job classification, it was usually called patrolmen and she got it changed to police officer.

She continued in her career even afterwards to try to mentor women as did Ms. Williams, the first woman of color to be a partner at a major law firm, mentoring women to help bring them along, to help them see that they can succeed, although, as I said, many obstacles continue. And many feel, we’re hearing about all of these challenges that women are confronting in tech firms, in government, in law firms, but we don’t hear a lot about what’s happening in law enforcement. And some people think that perhaps there’s too much pressure to stay quiet, that they don’t speak up, but she did talk frankly, that is Ms. Harrington, the Chief of Police, frankly about the constant crude comments that she had to confront.

And we know, of course, so many politicians who are women who run for office have to confront that, and we know that the #MeToo movement has tried to help in confronting our history and our continued sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace with the hope that we could continue to make some changes in the future.

Cynthia Gentile: It’s really remarkable just how far we have come since 1873, if we’re thinking about the case we discussed, but really just how much further we need to go. And these four women help us understand that progress that we’ve made and the progress that we need to make. It’s not just the optics of seeing a woman in charge, it’s also the work done around language, like changing it from patrolman to police officer, whatever it might be, to remove the gendered language that just permeates society and really serves to limit opportunity even just in name only.

So I’m really glad we had the opportunity to hear about these four women today. I didn’t know about them, I suspect a lot of the listeners didn’t know about them, and I learned a lot and I enjoyed this conversation very, very much. So I’m looking forward to our next one.

CJ Sherman: Thank you so much, Cyndi. It was really a pleasure to be with you today.

Cynthia Gentile: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. Be well and be safe.

Cynthia Gentile is an associate professor of management at American Public University. She holds a Juris Doctor from Rutgers University School of Law and is licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She teaches courses in human resources, management ethics, and employment law for American Public University and West Chester University of Pennsylvania. When she is not teaching, Professor Gentile is a dedicated advocate for equality, and sits on the board of the Alice Paul Institute’s Equal Rights Amendment Advocacy Committee. She is also a host on the Leading Forward podcast channel, with a dual focus on women business leaders and legal rights and responsibilities related to diversity, equality, and inclusion in the workplace.

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