Work Climate Is Warmer for Women
By R.H. Melton and Kirstin Downey Grimsley
"The president of the local said, 'Those guys don't want you,' " recalled Kifer, 60, who was raising two children at the time. "It's because women try 100 percent, and it makes men look bad.
"These damn men," she added, "need an attitude adjustment."
John Knight, a mortgage loan officer in Williamsburg, Mich., has an adjusted attitude about the workplace of the late 1990s. "There's been a general wising up," said Knight, 47. "Today, if a group of guys are talking in a circle and a woman walks up, the circle opens."
Men and women are profoundly different, and the workplace the arena where problems are solved, careers made, salaries earned and home life juggled can have a curious double effect, flattening but also accentuating gender differences like few things in society.
Whether it's in Kifer's gritty factory or Knight's sleek office building, interaction between the sexes has vastly improved in the blink of a generation, according to a nationwide survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. Much of the locker room chatter has evaporated in a climate that is warmer and fairer to female colleagues, and men and women have more finely tuned antennas to sexual harassment.
Some experts believe the good news about the workplace is that more people are willing to confront harassment. But those same observers see a potential downside, the potential to chill the working environment, robbing it of a creative energy that comes from men and women working as peers and colleagues.
"I have hope that men who are now 10, 18 and 22 will be in offices and factories that are better places than the workplace of 25 years ago." said Leslie R. Wolfe, president of the District-based Center for Women Policy Studies. "But it would be tragic if we end up with men who are sensitized but also terrorized."
The survey found strikingly similar numbers of men and woman who said that many everyday facets of working life from asking a colleague for career advice to speaking candidly in groups are now more difficult. Nearly half the men and more than one-third of the women said they generally avoided complimenting co-workers of the opposite sex on how they looked.
"You have to pre-plan what you say, it seems like," said James Lindow, 35, a warehouse operations manager in Green Bay, Wis.
The great tide of women into the American workplace has forever changed how it looks and sounds. Within two years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the white males who once ruled the nation's commerce will account for only 45 percent of all workers and 15 percent of new employees. Women, nonwhite males and new immigrants will account for 80 percent of labor force growth, and women of all colors will constitute 47 percent of the work force.
But women's increased presence in the workplace has caused different concerns for the sexes. The poll found evidence of discontent and confusion about the ongoing issues of pay equity and career advancement beneath more recent worries about how to divine the best ways to conduct workday dealings.
Wolfe sees women's growing presence as spurring nothing less than a long-term redirection of corporate and office culture as more companies adopt flex time, child care, working at home, job sharing and special mentoring programs for women.
But to Bill Elder, 53, a furniture sales representative in Dallas and survey respondent, the change comes down to a list of cautious behaviors he has adopted. "If you're in a conversation with a woman, you don't want to have the door closed," Elder said. "You want to be in threes, not in twos, in larger clusters, so there are more people involved, whether you are out for a drink after work or at dinner. All of a sudden, you're thinking of something that never entered your mind before."
Many workplace experts think confusion and resentment about the interaction of men and women at work adds a new layer of anxiety to already overtaxed employees.
"Men and women are left without the supports they need to get through the incredibly complicated world in which we're living," Jesse Bernstein, a Michigan-based expert on corporate employee assistance programs, said in an interview. "The man-and-woman thing has just heightened the level of complexity."
Human resources consultant Tamara Cagney, whose clients have included major firms such as AT&T, Lucent Technologies and Nationwide Savings & Loan, said that workers today are being asked to work 50- and 60-hour weeks and that women are feeling a special burden because of their many family responsibilities.
"Most of them feel like they're running just to stay in place," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company