NEW YORK — When author Sara Ann Friedman set out to measure women's progress in the workplace, she didn't settle for cold statistics - the faceless charts showing more women in management positions, the nameless graphs tracking more equitable pay scales. Instead, she turned to the voices of working women themselves.
Over a period of five years, Ms. Friedman traveled around the country, visiting work sites ranging from pink-collar ghettos to executive suites, and listening as more than 200 women talked about the meaning of work in their lives. Their jobs included everything from making hamburgers at McDonald's to making aircraft engines at McDonnell Douglas. Their earnings ranged from $3.50 an hour to $4 million a year.
"I heard a lot of positive stories from women who turned obstacles into opportunities," Friedman says. "And they all did it themselves." She has included 65 of these women in her new book, "Work Matters: Women Talk About Their Jobs and Their Lives" (Viking, $24.95).
Yet that self-reliance, however admirable, often produced a profound, continuing sense of isolation that surprised even Friedman, who has been writing about working women for 30 years. Despite wider opportunities and choices, she finds, women must still resolve career and workplace problems individually. As she puts it, "They're still crawling through the holes in the fence one at a time."
What's missing, Friedman says, is "the spirit of the 1970s," when the women's movement energized and united women. "There needs to be much more collective energy. You get more done, and you don't feel so alone."
During an interview at UNICEF headquarters, where she works as a consultant on global issues affecting girls and women, Friedman talked about what she sees as the most significant change in the past 30 years - not the increasing numbers of working women but changes in their attitudes. While a paycheck remains the primary factor propelling women into the work force, women are also driven by the desire for dignity, respect, independence, satisfaction, and power.
"It's not power in the same way men define power, which is control," she says. "Women want power over their own lives."
Yet that power often remains hard to come by. One of Friedman's subjects, a Kansas futures broker, displayed a sign reading "Mr. Griswold" on her office door to avoid being mistaken for a secretary. Another, a corporate executive, stored her new clothes in the car trunk and didn't tell her husband about her raises because she felt guilty about outearning him.
Impressed by the strength and independence of working-class women in rural middle America, Friedman criticizes what she sees as an overemphasis on "upper-middle-class white issues," such as breaking through the glass ceiling and balancing work and family. Too little attention, she maintains, is given to problems affecting women in service jobs and blue-collar positions. She coins a phrase, the "glass manhole cover," to describe the subtle discrimination and anything-but-subtle harassment that keep women in nontraditional, macho occupations from rising to better-paid or supervisory positions.
Friedman also uses her own experience to measure change - or the lack of it - in the workplace. When she graduated from Smith College in 1957, she followed what was then a predictable pattern for young women: She married a year later, then gave birth to the first of her three children the following year.
"There was no either/or choice," she says. "There was just one way. If you had children, you stayed home. It was a non-choice."
Today, Friedman says that although women have the illusion of choice, they face a different kind of non-choice. "They have to choose between either/or - either working or staying home - because the workplace structure still doesn't accommodate working mothers. They don't have a choice of taking off a year or two or three. The fertile years for work are the same fertile years for child-rearing, and the conflict is enormous."
As a result of that conflict, she says, women "are still blaming themselves for not being able to do it all. They say, 'It must be me.' "
One of her interview subjects, a producer at Walt Disney Productions, summed up the challenge by saying, "I feel like I'm pretending at work that I don't have a family and pretending at home that I don't have a job."
What must change, Friedman says, is the infrastructure of the workplace and other institutions. "All the family-values talk isn't really about family values - it's about structure," she says. As one example, she notes that the school day and workday don't coincide.
"You can make the argument that it's profitable to support working mothers. It's also right to produce good, strong, loving families. I think employers and the government have a responsibility to support families."
As she sees it, that support must include longer paid family leave for fathers as well as mothers, plus tax benefits for working parents. Permitting more job sharing, more-flexible schedules, and more work at home would also help families, she says.
Friedman encourages women to form networks in offices and apply pressure in workplaces and in Congress. "We also need unionizing for women," she adds.
Although some of these measures may cost employers money, Friedman says, "They're still the right thing to do. You can also put it in terms of profit. It's economically valuable to have satisfied employees."
Friedman lists three areas of support that help to create strong, independent women. The first involves support from one's own parents - a mother or father saying, "You can do anything." The second is "real support" from a spouse or partner, and the third, support from employers.
Making a case for such support, she says, "All people, men and women, should be allowed to be as rich and full and multidimensional as they can. We shouldn't be forced to be either nurturing or aggressive."
In time, Friedman hopes to see a "revolution" that produces a shorter workweek, a shift of energy from work to family life, and even "a redefinition of work that makes it part of one's life, rather than its whole." If that happens, she says, "We will have achieved a revolution of real - not either/or - choices."