Don't call her 'girl'

Maureen O'Donnell is not apologetic about her job as a secretary at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. "I like my job," she says. "I deal with graduate students and special programs. And I'm a good worker."

But she does want respect for her position. She tells of a day when a supervisor in her office was typing his own letter. A dean walked by and laughed: "Boy, some people will stoop to anything."

The soft-spoken but resolute woman is not one to let such cracks slide by. She decided to join the burgeoning movement of women office workers who are protesting similar indignities, low wages, and scant career opportunities.

Ms. O'Donnell was frustrated at work for several reasons, such as a lack of a proper job description, which meant her supervisor could assign any task, saying it was part of the job. And she had no proper channel to bring up her grievances.

"We were given a handbook that said if we had any problem, we should go to the personnel office," she says. "But there was no office." After meeting with the dean and vice-president of the school, who admitted that the announcement of an office was a bit premature, Ms. O'Donnell and several co-workers went to 9 to 5, an organization for women office workers in the Boston area.

9 to 5 is one of at least a dozen such groups in major cities. Working Women , the national umbrella organization for office workers, has 8,000 members and 12 local associations such as 9 to 5. These groups offer support in the form of workshops, newsletters, meetings, and campaigns against blatant job-place discrimination. They have lunch-time rallies, call press conferences, and help workers organize unions.

The statistics on the "pink collar ghetto" are sobering. Clerical, technical , and service jobs are one-third of the labor force today, and women compose 76 percent of the workers. Yet they make an average of $9,360 a year, compared with $14,924 paid to men in the same positions, according to US Department of Labor statistics. Women earn between 57 and 59 cents for every dollar a man makes, and the gap is widening.

"We know of a woman at an insurance firm who was supporting a son on $137 a week," says Janice Blood, publicist for Working Women, which has offices in Boston, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. "She had worked there 20 years and her title was account manager."

She believes that respect for women office workers involves the issue of what is in the paycheck.

"We pay highly what we value, and there is clearly no respect or value put on office jobs," Ms. Blood says.

9 to 5 membership crosses all sections of age, race, and education, say its organizers. Many who join say that they are not "feminist" but are interested in better treatment and pay. They have often felt undervalued or bored by jobs that don't use their skills. They are tired of bosses who call them "my girl," leave dirty lunch dishes to be washed, and sometimes sexually harrass women workers.

Why are women picking up this cause now? Ms. Blood points out there are more women in the job force than ever and they are working longer, even when they are married and have children.

"Another reason is economy," she says. "Many work because they have to. This is serious business to them. They feel they should get what is due.

"Women are finding they have got to get together to get the money to live," she says.

Women in 9 to 5, often college educated, are well organized.

And their tactics are working. They want media publicity, and they are adept in selecting causes that make headlines.

The banking industry is a major target. Working Women, charging that employment opportunities for women and minorities in banking worsened between 1970-1978, has just announced plans to target 50 banks in ten cities, including such banks as Chemical Bank in New York, National City Bank in Cleveland, and Seattle First National Bank.

9 to 5 is now completing a campaign to upgrade the status of women employees at First National Bank of Boston, the city's biggest bank. Several years ago 9 to 5 helped women win a back-pay settlement from Houghton Mifflin, the publishing company. Groups such as San Francisco's Women Organized for Employment, New York's Women Office Workers, and Chicago's Women Employed, have won similar settlements. They know that the publicity makes employers fear their groups more than they would some government agencies.

"We embarrass them, and it scares them," says Joan Quinlan, 9 to 5's staff director. She says that over 50 percent of the employees at First National Bank of Boston are women and that the vast majority are in low-paying jobs. Since 9 to 5 started its publicity drive, job posting, which allows all employees to see promotion opportunities that they might not otherwise hear about, has been instituted. And 79 women were promoted during the year, as opposed to fewer than 10 the year before.

"First National is an influential employers in this area," says Ms. Quinlan. "We see this a sign of achievement."

Wayne Taylor, spokesman for First National, says the bank had been studying job posting for quite some time before the 9 to 5 campaign. And when 9 to 5 complains that only 2 percent of the top-paying 258 jobs are held by women, he answers: "It's true that there is just a small percentage of top money women, but you have to remember it takes several years for women as well as men to move up. We have an excellent group of women, and I expect things will continue to improve. Women will be promoted."

The job posting program has been a success, according to Mr. Taylor. Women are now applying for positions such as management trainee that before were publicized only by word of mouth.

"There is less reliance on who you know," he says. "Women in this office read it very carefully."

One of the new slogans of the office workers movement is equal pay for comparable work. It's hard to file discrimination suits when there are so few men in clerical work. Ms. Bloos says. She thinks equal pay should take into account skills and education.

"A janitor makes more money than a secretary," says Ms. Blood. "It's only because it is considered women's work."

Some women feel that more men in clerical jobs will cause salary levels to go up. Others worry that men will take over the better jobs.

"I'd like to see no more job ghettos -- men in certain jobs, and women in others," says Ms. Blood. "It would be wonderful if more men felt they could take office jobs."

Ms. Blood believes the single most important thing the clerical workers movement has done is to take office workers' problems out of the realm of the isolated individual.

"There is just so much an individual can do," she says."She can't change laws and federal agencies by herself."

Maureen O'Donnell, who is now chairwoman of 9 to 5, has seen changes at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy since she first joined 9 to 5. She and her co-workers have just elected to organize a union of clerical and technical workers at the school.

Dr. James Mickels, executive vice-president of the school, says he thinks women have been treated equally at the college, and he points out that the school did have an internal organization through which the workers could communicate.

"In their opinion, we weren't moving fast enough, although we thought we were ," he says. "We are trying to do everything we can to meet personnel needs, but we don't have the luxury to appoint someone for every function. We have to subdivide the tasks."

But Ms. O'Donnell still thinks there is a lot to do.

"We never had job evaluations until the last couple weeks," she says. "But they weren't satisfactory. They talked about things such as appearance. One woman's major weakness was her 'strong personality.'"

Working Women's Janice Blood says, "A job will be perfect when opportunities are the same and sex is not a factor -- once the law is in place in spirit as well as letter,"

She lists reasons why business doesn't jump on the bandwagon: "It's hard for anyone to change the status quo," she says. She also believes business is misreading public support of the office workers who are seeking an improvement of morale and money on the job.

"Business is very much out of tune," Ms. Blood says. "They think the women's movement, consumerism, and other 'isms' are just short-term fads."

She adds that companies don't want to lose the "profit" they make by using the cheap labor the office jobs traditionally represent.

"These businesses depend on intensive clerical work, and societal values reinforce that these jobs should be paid less." But Ms. Blood points out that any such profits are short term.

"Women will be tremendous producers when they have the chance," she says.

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