By Albert R. Hunt,

The Roets women — Frances, the 83-year-old grandmother; Ann, the 53-year-old mother; and daughter Heather, 26 — have lived in profoundly different circumstances. Yet they agree women have made enormous progress over the past generation, but glaring inequities persist.

These three Milwaukee-area women provide a microcosm of the change affecting women in their work and in the marketplace in America. Frances, whose late husband was a filling-station owner, raised six kids and didn’t work outside the home until they were grown, when she became a part-time librarian; Ann, mother of two and divorced, worked and struggled to balance job and family, and Heather, a graphic designer and the married mother of a four-year-old, has few qualms about working more so she can provide more.

Women have many more opportunities today and seize them, the Roetses believe: “Women are a lot smarter than we were,” the sprightly grandmother says. The mother and her daughter cite an array of areas where women are treated better. But, in separate interviews, they responded almost identically on the need for more progress: “Absolutely, there still are big gender-based inequalities,” says Ann Roets, who “was driven” to work — she manages a career-training consulting firm — “by virtue of having two kids to raise.”

Their optimism, tempered by the persistence of glass ceilings, albeit at higher levels, is a central theme of the June, 2000, Wall Street Journal/NBC News special survey on women in the workplace, marketplace and politics. More than 80% of Americans, and an even higher percentage of men, say women have made considerable progress over the past generation in jobs; better than three quarters see similar progress in the marketplace. A solid plurality say the women’s movement has had a “largely positive impact” on America; fewer than one in five believe the impact has been negative.

“Americans think women have made significant progress,” says Robert Teeter who, with Peter Hart, conducted the survey of 2,010 people across the country. His sense that there would be sizable pockets of opposition — the religious right or even women in certain situations — didn’t materialize. “These are universally held views, and it has been good for society,” he says.

Yet like the Roetses many Americans, especially women, think the pace of change is too slow.

They cite the difficulty that professional women find in advancing to the top levels, the discrimination and harassment against working-class women and overall pay inequities. According to Labor Department data, women earn about three-quarters of what men earn; that is up about 25% from a few decades ago, but it isn’t sufficient, most women said.

“For all the gains, women consider the workplace and the marketplace two of the most hostile areas when it comes to discrimination and harassment,” Mr. Teeter says.

About 44% of women feel they have been discriminated against because of gender, the WSJ/NBC News poll shows, and almost a third say they have been sexually harassed. Still, Americans see more advances not only in careers but also in how women are treated in the marketplace, with important pockets of resistance: the automobile business most notably.

The overwhelming majority of women work for economic reasons — as opposed to personal satisfaction — and tensions persist over work and family. One interesting conundrum: the women’s movement has very positive connotations but feminism, even among women, doesn’t.

In almost every area of the poll, men think women have made greater progress and are better situated than women think they are. That doesn’t surprise Mr. Teeter; the same results surface on race, as whites think there has been more progress than African-Americans believe. “If you haven’t actually experienced discrimination, you tend to focus more on the progress,” he says.

The overall positive attitudes reflect some major changes that have occurred over the course of the Roetses’ generational experiences.

Thirty-five years ago, the Harvard business school had never graduated a female. Today almost 40% of business-school graduates are women; even at Harvard, 30% of 263 business-school graduates were women in June 2000. In addition, 38% of all businesses in America are owned by women.

More than one-quarter of lawyers are females, nine times the number in 1960 and triple the number 20 years ago. Almost half the current law-school population is comprised of women. The advances in medicine are as striking. Almost a quarter of doctors and 43% of medical-school students are women; at several prestigious medical schools, men are in the minority.

But the medical profession provides a case study in the opportunities and problems for women in general. Most women doctors are in the so-called nurturing fields — pediatrics, family doctors, obstetrics and gynecology. Few are in the more prestigious and highly compensated fields such as neurosurgery or heart surgery. Women remain a distinct minority on medical-school faculties, and there are precious few female deans.

The top of corporate America also is an almost exclusively male domain. Among the Fortune 500 there are only two women chief executives: Carly Fiorina of computer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. and Andrea Jung of cosmetics and consumer-products concern Avon Products Inc.

The Journal/NBC News poll shows that while half of Americans think women are treated professionally in the workplace, a majority of women say that mainly isn’t the case. The same holds true for including women in important financial decisions relating to retirement and investment planning, they say.

The problem may be even worse at the bottom end of the income spectrum. Labor Department data suggest that pay discrimination is pervasive here, and sexual harassment is cited slightly more by women earning less than $30,000 a year than by women earning more.

Though a majority of women say they haven’t suffered discrimination or sexual harassment, more striking is the sizeable minority that feels it has. The Baby Boom generation, Mr. Teeter says, “is the most vocal and most sensitized to this.”

Well more than half of women ages 35 to 49 say they have been discriminated against because of gender, and more than 40% say they have been sexually harassed. These are considerably higher levels than for either older or younger women. Similarly discrimination and harassment are most cited by higher-income, better-educated, professional women. One exception: It is blue-collar women who most often say they have been sexually harassed.

Both discrimination and harassment are identified overwhelmingly by women as a workplace issue, as opposed to social or school settings.

Contrary to the stereotype proffered by some critics, most women work out of economic necessity. Almost two-thirds in the poll say they work because they are the primary wage earner or the job is necessary to make ends meet; another one in five says it helps afford “better things” for their household. Only 14% say they don’t have to work but do so for their own personal satisfaction. Economic necessity is cited overwhelmingly by low-income women and African-Americans.

Yet for all the celebrated gains, the poll reveals a persistently palpable tension for women. A plurality of working women say they actually would prefer to be home raising children but work because they need the income. By only a relatively small margin of 46% to 38% do Americans see it as a positive development that more women are combining career and family; there is no difference between men and women on this issue.

The demographic differences on these questions are instructive. For example, a diverse group — African-Americans, Hispanics, the more affluent and younger people — see combining work and family as a positive development, while older and rural Americans are more negative. Yet, no doubt reflecting economic realities, the majority of Hispanic and African-American working women would stay home to raise their kids if they could. A clear majority of upper-income and professional women would opt for work.

One area where women believe there has been insufficient progress has been the portrayal of them in advertising and the media. “All you see is young women in tank tops and belly rings,” complains Heather Roets, the 26-year-old Milwaukee graphic designer.

In a number of other areas, people say women are treated equally with men: consumer shopping, making a hotel or restaurant reservation, college admissions, buying stocks or bonds and even buying a home. A small majority thinks men are treated better in applying for bank loans.

The two areas where women continue to face severe problems, according to the poll, are in dealing with cars and earning a salary.

Almost three-quarters of the respondents think men get better treatment when it comes to buying an automobile: “You always do better if you bring a husband or boyfriend along,” says Heather Roets. And 87% say that is the case in dealing with auto repairs or maintenance.

This suggests the considerable effort by the auto companies to make their product more female-friendly has a long way to go. “The results indicate the auto industry distinguishes itself as an example of how not to deal with women as consumers,” Mr. Teeter says.

More than seven in 10 Americans say that when it comes to earning a salary, men are treated better. An even larger percentage of women feel that way.

Both government data and the poll underscore this view. Almost half of employed men say they are in households with more than $50,000 a year in income, but slightly less than 40% of working women say they fall in that category in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey.

Another question on how women see gender differences affecting qualifications to hold various occupations is revealing. Asked about six jobs — doctor, car salesperson, banker, lawyer, religious adviser and police officer — a majority of women in each case say gender makes no difference. “Qualifications depend on a whole lot of criteria that are not necessarily gender-driven,” Ann Roets says.

A solid plurality of women prefer a female doctor, offset by a similar plurality saying they would prefer a man as a religious adviser. But by 38% to 5%, women say they would opt for a male police officer. “A man just pops into my mind,” Heather Roets says. “It’s the old stereotype of a strong person.”

Finally, for all the accolades they give the women’s movement, by better than a 2-to-1 margin women don’t consider themselves feminists. This feeling runs across the board — even a majority of self-described politically liberal women say they aren’t feminists — with one exception: women earning more than $100,000 a year.



This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of the Wall Street Journal. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.