THE American workplace is not merely a physical location, it is an environment and a mind-set. Yet those of us who deal with work issues have described these ambiguous settings with concrete boundaries: The glass ceiling. The sticky floor. Brick walls.
The new focus on reinventing the American workplace gives women a chance to bend that rigid and unyielding architecture into a more flexible shape. Restructuring jobs to promote higher skills and performance provides us with an opening to break the historic trends that have equated women's jobs with unimportant work and low wages.
Over the past 12 years, the barriers facing working women - indeed all workers - have often seemed as inescapable as Alcatraz. The glass ceiling, for example, describes a real phenomenon: Women still represent only 2 percent of top-level management. And as recently as 1992, only 1 percent of women who worked at full-time jobs - a mere 368,000 nationwide - earned more than $75,000 - compared with the 3.2 million men who exceeded that level.
The sticky floor is equally real. More than two-thirds of the nation's 54 million working women are clustered in clerical, food service, or sales positions, or in nursing, teaching, or child care. Most are in low-paying slots, with little chance of upward mobility. Eighty percent of all women workers (and 40 percent of full-time women workers) earn less than $25,000.
Women are more likely to be among the working poor. More than 4 million families headed by women struggle to survive below the poverty line.
Between ceiling and floor, women have been walled in by diehard attitudes about their capabilities and worth. Despite the rhetoric of equality, women still earn only 71 cents for every dollar earned by men. Meanwhile, charges of sexual harassment and discrimination have continued to rise.
As if gender-based problems weren't enough, women have been severely tested by the same workplace setbacks affecting most of America's low- and mid-wage workers: Unemployment, runaway jobs, temporary and part-time work, moonlighting, stress-related illness, and despair have all soared. Meanwhile, our standard of living, benefits, good jobs, and basic fairness have plummeted.
The initiative to create a high-wage, high-skill workplace presents an opportunity to reverse these trends. For women especially, it is an opening to rebuild old structures and attitudes that have hampered true employment equality.
Recent studies show that, wherever a certain job category is perceived as ``women's work,'' wages are predictably lower.
Last year, for example, a Massachusetts court ruled that female cafeteria workers in the Everett public school system performed work comparable to that of the male custodians. Yet in 1991, while the women in the cafeteria made only $6.44 to $6.85 an hour, the custodians were paid $10.76 to $12.73 - almost twice as much.
JUDGE Gordon L. Doerfer noted that the school system's justification was based, in part, on ``the perception that women who work in a home kitchen gain familiarity with the tasks required of them in the cafeteria. But the same argument can be made regarding custodial skills.... The pernicious aspect of this argument is that it assumes that greater skill is required for the `man's work' around the house than is required for the `woman's work' around the house.'' This devaluation of women's labor yields a wage gap of up to 11 percent in manufacturing and as much as 26 percent in service industries.
Even in gender-integrated occupations, women and men tend to be segregated in any given workplace. This means that employers tend to make job classifications mostly male or mostly female. And surprise! Where the job is filled mostly by women, it is usually compensated at a lesser rate than where the classification is integrated or filled by men. In a workplace where most accountants are women, they will be paid less than in a similar workplace where most accountants are men.
Inequalities in pay have, in fact, remained stubbornly intractable despite 30 years of legislated pay equality. Since we haven't succeeded in changing the pay scales, changing the nature of the jobs may prove the best solution.
That's where the notion of high-wage, high-skill jobs comes in. Where it's done right, the high-performance workplace of the future is based on teams that cross traditional job boundaries. It encourages workers to be knowledgeable about all aspects of the work and to participate in decisionmaking, rather than be relegated to narrowly defined and limited slots. It fosters an environment that is supportive, flexible, and hospitable to diversity, rather than one based on conformity and compartmentalization.
Americans must not just pave over the sticky floor and remove a few walls but create new windows of opportunity. We must, above all, become innovative architects of our own workplace future. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.