3 Women Who Changed the Workplace

The state of the workplace for women in 2019 remains rife with challenges–from the gender-pay gap to workplace harassment to a lack of representation in the C-suite. Despite those obstacles, advancements are still being realized–with the pay gap slowly narrowing, dialogue about harassment at record highs and more companies realizing the need for leaders who reflect their employees and customers.

These wins continue centuries of work forged by women and their allies. As Women’s History Month comes to a close, HRE spoke with Ileen A. DeVault, academic director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University and a professor of labor history, about three women whose work helped advance inclusion and equality.

Lucy Parsons

Parsons and her husband, Albert, rose to prominence in the labor movement in the late 19th century. Albert was executed in 1887 for his alleged involvement in the violence at the Haymarket Riot, and Parsons went on to co-found the Industrial Workers of the World and organize the first Chicago Hunger Demonstration in 1915. Parsons was a self-described feminist–and later, most historians agree, a member of the Communist Party–who traced the oppression of women to the oppression of the working class.

“With the growth of income equality over the past few decades,” DeVault says, “social-class differences have new and revived relevance.” One of the big differences between Parsons’ time and today, she adds, is the definition of “working class,” which has expanded beyond industrial workplaces to also include service sectors and education.

Frances Perkins

Perkins holds the distinction as the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet in her post as Secretary of Labor, which she held from 1933 to 1945–however, it’s her work, not necessarily her title, that should be remembered, DeVault says. Perkins took over the Department of Labor at the height of the Great Depression and helped usher in successful jobs-creation programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and laws to ensure workers’ rights–minimum wage, maximum hours, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. She chaired the committee that wrote a report about the need for government assistance, ultimately leading to the Social Security Act.

Today, many of the programs and policies Perkins pioneered, DeVault says, are taken as “givens,” and “not as things that workers used to not have and had to fight long and hard to get.” Modern workers, she adds, largely don’t appreciate the controversial nature of Perkins’ appointment; hers was the first on which the labor movement, led by the American Federation of Labor, wasn’t consulted and represented a departure from the norm of appointing a labor leader–let alone, a woman.

Lilly Ledbetter

After nearly 20 years with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Ledbetter learned through an anonymous tip that she was making significantly less than her male counterparts. She ultimately filed suit in a case that wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court–which ruled in 2007 against Ledbetter, contending she didn’t file suit within the requisite 180-day period following a discriminatory action.

That same year, federal lawmakers introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to reset the clock on that 180-day limit every time a company issues a paycheck containing earnings that were determined discriminatorily. The measure was adopted and served as the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

While the Ledbetter case and subsequent Fair Pay Act were a step in the right direction for gender equality in the workplace, DeVault notes, “just as with every other gain made by women and/or workers we need strong social movements to push for, support and improve every inch of gain we make.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.