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Labor Day is generally considered a time to recognize the social and economic achievements of U.S. workers. And a significant amount of this achievement is due to opportunities presented by removing overt discriminatory barriers to employment.  

But it is also important to realize that many employment-related statutes were passed – in part – to combat less overt barriers such as stereotypes that blocked women and others from obtaining equality in the work place. 

Anti-Employment Discrimination Statutes Generally Prohibit Making Employment Decisions Based on Stereotypes 

Consider for example, Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen’s Civil Rights Act’s ultimate purpose is not merely to eliminate the discrimination but also the effects of discrimination, particularly “the effects of offensive or demeaning stereotypes, prejudices, and biases.” Miller v CA Muer Corp, 420 Mich 355, 363, 362 NW2d 650 (1984).

It is easier to understand why prohibiting discrimination based on stereotypes is just as important as prohibiting overt discrimination when you look back on what stereotypes, existed. 

Take for example the images included in this post, which come from the RCA Company manual, circa 1940s that was posted by Retronaut

At the time the intended audience for this manual probably appreciated some guidance in how to work along side women who began to transition from kitchen and reproductive duties to simply production duties. But now (hopefully) it is at best humorous to think that companies held views like “women are teachable” (above). 

Stereotypes still persist, but the discussion now more often than not takes place outside of the workplace. 

Fast forward to the present and it is clear that stereotypes still persist, just not in company policies and the workplace. Instead, Marissa Mayer’s recent ascension to the ranks of CEO of a major U.S. Corporation, Yahoo, illustrates that the headlines garnered by Ms. Mayer focused as much or more on her pregnancy and whether it was realistic or appropriate for her to balance motherhood with the demands of a major CEO position.

Women are Patient.jpgYet, it is even more significant that her pregnancy or how she would balance the demands of the job with motherhood did not deter Yahoo from considering Ms. Mayer for the position, let alone hiring her for it. Score one for progress.

But Yahoo like other employers recognize that the employment landscape has changed. Consider that according to the Pew Research Center, women made up almost half of the labor force (46.7%) in 2010. And in terms of education, women surpass men in both college enrollment and completion.

In light of these facts, perhaps Yahoo should be providing Ms. Mayer and her sisterhood with manuals assuring them that men are “teachable” (although my wife may argue it takes more time and effort) and do not be afraid to call a “trained male counselor” in dealing with male workers.  

In all seriousness, since the time of the manual depicted in this post, women have and continue to make significant gains in their labor force participation and educational attainment. And the majority of U.S. society tends to view this as a positive change. Specifically, a September 2011 Pew Research poll found that 73% of Americans feel that the trend toward more women in the workforce has been a change for the better in society.

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Women in the Workplace – Conflicting Societal Views, but Employers Don’t Have the Option to be Conflicted.    

The public may be conflicted about what it means for a woman to properly balance career and family obligations.

But an employer should not have any such conflict for good reason: An employer cannot generally comply with state or federal law by making employment decisions based on suspicion, assumption, or subjective information that a person cannot perform a job because of a protected characteristic, such as gender, pregnancy, or age.

In 2010, women made up almost half of the labor force (46.7%). In 1997, women made up 46.2% of the labor force, and back in 1970 women made up only 38.1% of the labor force.