FOR the past 30 years, women's entry into the work force has been steady and dramatic, rising from 37 percent of working-age women in the labor force in 1960 to 57 percent today. Now, according to the US Labor Department, women's participation in the labor force has leveled off. A slowdown in the American economy and a rising birth rate are combining to keep more women at home. Labor statisticians do not expect this plateau to be permanent. But the numerical leveling off serves as an opportunity to consider the progress working women have made in three important areas:
Wages. In 1939, women earned 63 cents for every dollar men earned. Today that figure is 67 cents - progress, but hardly equality. As one example of disparities that still exist, the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission last month sued WBAL-TV in Baltimore, charging that the station illegally paid a former anchorwoman $30,000 to $40,000 less than her male counterparts, then fired her when she complained about the discrepancies. The station counters that the woman's pay was equitable with her self-imposed work schedule.
Equal opportunity. Although the success of American women in moving into middle management has been well documented, doors at the top levels of business remain closed to all but a handful of women. This week a US court of appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling in favor of a woman who had accused the Price Waterhouse accounting firm of sex discrimination in denying her a partnership. Last week a federal district judge found a prominent Philadelphia law firm guilty of sex discrimination in refusing to make a female associate a partner. The judge charged the firm with applying tougher standards to women who seek partnerships than to men.
Sexual harassment. Laws and corporate policies have helped to heighten public awareness of this persistent workplace problem. But questions of appropriate conduct often remain murky. One encouraging sign comes from Harvard University, which has just established a committee to formulate a policy on sexual harassment. In addition to defining sexual harassment, the policy will establish procedures for registering complaints.
As women continue to be an integral part of the work force, these inequities will demand attention and solutions. So will the perennial issues of child care, parental leave, and elder care. As a matter of fairness, these issues are important, one by one. Taken as a whole, their resolution promises a change in attitude toward women that will improve society in and out of the workplace.