The US Department of Labor says that women made up just 20% of the American workforce in the 1920s. Today, that number is 47%. Took 100 years to ratchet up 27 points…and we’re still not equal!
Looking back on my career, I never questioned that I would have a career. I’m a child of the late 50s and 60s. Women of my generation were more focused on getting married and raising families than having a work life. But my mother was a substitute teacher for many years. She was concert master in a respected orchestra. She also lobbied against rent control. Born in 1914, daughter of a tailor from England by way of Russia, she had a Teaching degree from Hunter College, but also a master’s degree in language arts.
My Dad was a celebrated HS track and field coach and Phys Ed teacher. His German parents had invested in real estate and his mother was a sophisticated housewife who emigrated in the early 20th century. Dad had a football scholarship at NYU and was an All-American Center when the University had a noted team. He wanted to be a doctor but it was during the depression and doctors weren’t making a living. As a young father he opted for the security of a NYC teacher. Later on, he became a modest real estate tycoon owning and operating apartment buildings, a bowling alley and bungalow colonies But my mother was the driving force of the family. They sent me to a New England University and I never doubted that I would be a successful businesswoman—even though women at that time mostly aspired to (and were limited to) teaching, nursing and secretarying. Was it likely that I’d make less money than my male counterparts? Yes. Was I likely to experience discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace? Of course. But I never questioned whether I’d get to have a job let along a career. Of course, I wanted to climb the ladder to success. Of course, I wanted to get to the top. By the 90s when I was successful it was taken for granted that you should want and pursue those things as a matter of policy.
We now know this as “leaning in”, an action and a best selling book of the same name authored by Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook fame. Her idea was rather controversial (although exhilarating) and there was pushback. Then came the pandemic and the shecession where women were laid off in higher numbers than men. Meanwhile, they shouldered more responsibilities at home and made more sacrifices in their worklife to look after kids and others in need of care. Many women left the workforce and haven’t yet returned, but that doesn’t mean ambition is dead. It just might look a little different.
My eldest daughter worked through three pregnancies and births, but with her third, the pull towards hands-on motherhood intensified and she stayed home after maternity leave for 16 years. Then the pull towards career re-asserted itself. After trying entrepreneurial pursuits over the past five years, she just accepted a high-ranking job as Senior brand manager for a cosmetic corporation—the field she loves and knows best. It wasn’t easy to get back on the carousel, but once again committed, she never stopped trying.
Our Trailblazers in this edition have made it to the top echelons of their industries, to a crossroads where they had to decide whether to keep climbing that ladder or step off or around or to a different one. And they ended up making very different decisions. See for yourself. Rachel Balcovec, Michelle Gadsden-Williams and LaShonda Williams we salute you! And I wonder…do you think there’s something special about the Williams name? Venus? Serena? Vanessa? Michelle? Esther? Please loan us your two cents! Leave a Comment below!
A career trailblazer with a highly diverse skill set, Elaine is hard at work with her team of content creators, re-imagining the latest iteration of WomensBiz.US to meet the needs of women operating in today’s ever-changing business environment.