Equality on the Job

The long ascent of women workers has been hard-fought, and vestiges of male privilege remain.

Back in 1949, this magazine published a trailblazing cover story titled “Do Working Women Get a Fair Break?”

It was anonymously bylined "By a Working Woman," and it answered the question in the title with an emphatic and caustic no. It laid out the case for workplace equality with cogent arguments that would gradually gain legal traction over the following 25 years.

Accompanying that story was "A Man's Rebuttal," written by an unnamed employer in defense of male preference in the workplace. But the aggrieved woman was given the last word, including this: "Much of what you say, Mr. Employer, is merely the entrenched legend and folklore that prevails among men."

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Our files don't indicate who wrote those two stories, but I suspect that the woman's point of view was a collaboration among the three professional women -- one writer, one copy editor and the research chief -- among 12 male writers and senior editors. And I suspect that the anonymous employer was the editor in chief, my grandfather, W.M. Kiplinger.

In many ways, W.M. Kiplinger was a very progressive employer for his era -- in his hiring practices (including women and minorities) and in providing rich benefits, profit sharing and gifts of company stock to staff. But in this story, the employer's point of view -- perhaps my grandfather's -- reflected assumptions about women that have long since been discredited.

The employer's position did acknowledge, however, that the winds of change were beginning to blow: "We all know that more and more women are becoming [primary] breadwinners, not only for themselves, but for dependents. ... This fact alone will make great changes in the employment attitudes toward women, but it will take time." He concluded magnanimously: "Note that I have NOT said women's place is the home."

Fair share. In the year that story was written -- four years after men returned from World War II and reclaimed from women their former jobs in factories and offices -- just 28% of the paid labor force in the U.S. was female. Women's share of professional occupations such as law, medicine, accounting, engineering and science was less than 5%. In business management, it was only 3.5%.

Today, women constitute their proportionate 50% of the paid labor force, and they briefly became a majority during the Great Recession, when men lost millions of jobs in construction, manufacturing and finance.

Furthermore, in professional and managerial employment, women hold 52% of the jobs, twice the level they held in 1980. This rate will probably keep rising because young women are earning about 60% of all bachelor's and master's degrees today, and nearly half of the law and medical degrees.

The staffing of this magazine, once aptly titled Changing Times, illustrates this trend. Back in the early '80s, when our staff was still largely male, we were probably the first financial magazine to be headed by a woman, editor Marjorie White. Today, more than half of my colleagues who create the magazine each month are women, led by editor Janet Bodnar. Our women journalists cover investing, taxes, college costs, retirement issues -- and cars.

What about men? The long ascent of women workers has been hard-fought, and vestiges of male privilege remain. But now there is concern that young men -- falling further behind in education -- will become underrepresented in the most promising occupations of a postindustrial economy.

Why this is happening is a complex sociological question I will save for another day. In the meantime, let's all take heart that working women are, at last, getting that "fair break" that seemed so elusive in 1949.

Columnist Knight Kiplinger is editor in chief of this magazine and of The Kiplinger Letter and Kiplinger.com.

Knight Kiplinger
Editor Emeritus, Kiplinger

Knight came to Kiplinger in 1983, after 13 years in daily newspaper journalism, the last six as Washington bureau chief of the Ottaway Newspapers division of Dow Jones. A frequent speaker before business audiences, he has appeared on NPR, CNN, Fox and CNBC, among other networks. Knight contributes to the weekly Kiplinger Letter.