Jacklyn Beard has spent 32 of her 51 years as a secretary. When she was growing up, she wanted to be a veterinarian, but her father didn't think that was an appropriate job for a woman. Those jobs were limited to nurse, teacher, secretary and homemaker, she recalls. Administrative work appealed to her, so she took typing and shorthand in high school and stuck with it.
Beard, who grew up in a small Michigan town, likes that her job lasts from 8 to 5 and that she can leave work concerns at the office alongside the keyboard. "Weekends are my own, and evenings are my own," she said.
She worked for the city of Lansing for 23 years, two-thirds of that time in the police department.
"I handled, like, 13 phone lines and a captain, two second lieutenants. . . . It was a very good place to work" for most of her 14 years there, Beard said.
A few officers made off-color or bawdy comments, and Beard says she generally tried to deal with them firmly. But one officer wasn't so easy to turn off. He was divorcing his wife and regularly would make comments about how evil and unworthy all women were, how bad women's influences were, and more.
"He'd make a comment and look out the door to see if I heard it and reacted. And then I wouldn't," she said. After more than a year of this, her morale began slipping. So she complained to his supervisor, but he did nothing, she said. Eventually, she found another secretarial job with the city, at which point she said she filed harassment charges with the police department's internal affairs division. Lansing police said that they could not find her complaint of more than a decade ago but that they do not condone such behavior and that they work to have a professional environment where men and women can thrive.
These days, Beard works for several professors at Michigan State University's College of Law. She likes listening to conversations between students and faculty members about Supreme Court nominees and decisions.
She also appreciates e-mail, computers and other technology. "I remember typewriters and carbon paper. I remember having to retype a 500-page grant page by page for a few editorial changes in it."
Marissa Levin hit a dead end in career advancement when her boss wouldn't allow her to work from home once her children were born. It was more than 10 years ago, and he had traditional views of work and workers, she recalls. She remembers him telling her she'd never rise in the company, so she started working at night and on weekends to create her own.
She established Information Experts Inc., a strategic communications and e-learning company, from her home in October 1995. "Two things in women's lives are grossly underestimated -- natural childbirth and owning your own business. They're both equally painful. They're both equally rewarding," she said. She knows about both -- Levin is the mother of two sons, ages 5 and 8.
Levin, 38, relishes both her business and her family life. She's her company's chief executive, yet she runs out to buy baby-shower gifts for workers. She speaks at women's business conferences, and yet she has no nanny or day-care provider for her sons -- and likes it that way. She thinks bosses need to value their workers -- their human capital, relationships with clients and camaraderie and teamwork.
So Information Experts offers part-time schedules, team-building events -- a scavenger hunt to Reston Town Center was a recent one -- and a culture that stresses employee involvement and flexibility. Before the company moved into its new Reston offices, near the Washington and Old Dominion trails, Levin asked her design staff to work directly with the architects to make the office comfortable and useful. They installed showers for staff members, in part because there's a gym nearby and because, Levin said, "we want to promote a healthy culture."
Levin, a Baltimore native, oversees a firm of 40 consultants and contractors; her husband, Adam, is senior vice president and oversees operations. The firm helps clients communicate with their customers, employees and other audiences through branding, marketing, training and other tools such as kiosks and Web sites.
"Our employees are very independent, creative, innovative thinkers, and I think they have a lot of great ideas on how to make the company run more efficiently," she said in an e-mail. One example: It was a veteran employee who suggested the company adopt a "paid time off" bank so people could use their vacation, personal and sick days however they wanted. That's now company policy.
Levin is optimistic about the many opportunities for women today. Yet those opportunities create Levin's biggest stress -- a worry she's letting down others. "When I am focused on work, often I feel I should be focused on other things, like volunteering in my children's school, or cleaning the house, etc. When I am focused on the kids during the week, I feel guilty for not being focused on work."
Candice P. Lange started at Eli Lilly and Co. right after getting her bachelor's degree from Purdue University. She joined the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company's laboratory operations and, because of her degree in pharmacy, she quickly moved into clinical research, serving as a team member on the Prozac project, during which she met her husband, Wade.
"Lilly was a different place then [25 years ago]. Working hours were a strict 7:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Some managers would even walk the halls at 7:35 to catch late arrivals," Lange wrote in an e-mail. "There were few women in management at that time -- I did not move into management for 10 years, after I completed my MBA and learned some networking skills to help manage my career." She remembers that in 1992, Lilly decided to create a job that would deal with work-life issues.
"They were looking for someone with management experience who was living the issue. I had 120 people in my department, two little children and a working spouse," she recalled.
She took the job, hoping to help with work-life balance issues she and other women felt keenly.
These days, Lilly has an on-site day-care center, a fitness center, Summer Science Camp for employees' school-age children and a host of other benefits including paid maternity leave, free health screening, flu shots and mammograms at its headquarters. The company has been recognized by Working Mother and Fortune magazines as one of the best places to work for moms and minorities. And Lange is proud of the company's flextime and other initiatives.
The biggest issue for working women's work-life right now, she thinks, is time -- "the issue of work and overwork," of fitting in all that the career requires and enough of the family and personal needs, too. She thinks giving staffers control over when and where they work may help with the time crunch, so they can jump into their project wearing "jeans and a sweatshirt" at home.
Her hope for the next big change in corporate America is refashioning its expectations of leaders. "We still leave a lot of talent on the table. We still have a mental model of what a leader looks like. In many organizations, it's still hard to put a female in that mental model."
Advocate for Women's Pay
Karen Nussbaum worked as a university clerk-typist for three years. She worked in an insurance company typing forms. And she worked as a waitress.
"I did all the kinds of jobs women my age did when I was young," recalled Nussbaum, who at 55 now heads the AFL-CIO's individual advocate and action arm, called Working America.
So in 1973, unhappy with her secretarial job, she created 9to5. The organization aimed to help secretaries and other women win more rights and better working conditions. It brought lawsuits that brought settlements of more than $3 million in back pay for women in publishing and banking, as well as pay raises for female employees in banking, insurance and engineering.
Nussbaum co-wrote the 1983 book "9to5 -- The Working Woman's Guide to Office Survival." She had become a leading advocate for working women, especially those who eked out a living. Her career included a stint working for the Clinton administration in the Labor Department; she joined the union in 1996.
She sees many issues as unique to women -- equal-pay cases, sexual discrimination and harassment -- but others, such as the need for child care, good health insurance and pensions, as broader issues that affect everyone.
"Far fewer people have pensions. People are losing their health insurance. Those are dramatic changes for worse" since the movie "Nine to Five" came out, she said.
"It turned out to be a bad deal. We asked for equality, and what we got is more work," Nussbaum said. She rails particularly about the pay issues many women face -- especially those who don't have MBAs or managerial positions.
One-third of women worked in clerical jobs in 1980; now it's nearly one in four, Nussbaum said, and many of them are invisible, working in anonymous call centers or from home offices doing transcriptions. Some, she acknowledges, earn higher wages as executive assistants and office managers, but more are stuck in low-wage jobs. More than half of all clerical and administrative hourly workers earn less than $25,000 a year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In September, Nussbaum attended the D.C. Labor Film Fest, during which "Nine to Five" was shown, attended by actress-activist Jane Fonda. But seeing it raised the question of what the movie would look like if it were made in 2005. Said Nussbaum: "The three characters would be a little more diverse. One would be professional, an office worker and service worker. Maybe one would work in the cafeteria. Maybe one would be a manager. Jane would call it '24/7,' and one of the biggest issues would be job outsourcing."
At 26, Shenika Watlington has already worked as a gofer and has identified places where "cussing and vulgarity" are the norm -- for instance, some Wall Street trading floors. So she's determined to find a workplace that values her talents, contributions -- and her commitment to family and children.
Once she's armed with the MBA she'll receive in April from the University of Michigan, Watlington expects a lot for herself and of her future employer -- advancement opportunities for women, flexibility and balance and a strong reputation. She wants to climb the ladder, too, but says she is less focused on a big title than on the contributions she makes and the personal satisfaction she hopes to find.
She has already worked for three years as an entry-level financial analyst, including a year as the office gofer in the investor relations department of a big bank in Charlotte.
"I just decided I wanted more responsibility. . . . I knew I didn't want to sit at a computer all day looking at spreadsheets," said Watlington of her decision to pursue an MBA. "It was never going to be Shenika's bank," no matter what she did.
Raised by a single mother near Greensboro, N.C., she said her mother "pushed me hard. . . . She wanted me to have options."
"I definitely think it's harder" for women in business, Watlington said, adding that she thinks subtle gender and race discrimination still occur. Yet she is concerned more about finding or creating a workplace that values family time and individuality. "My family and my relationship with people -- that's going to be my legacy," she said.
Watlington interned at Kraft Foods Inc. over the summer. She found it woman-friendly because of flexible and part-time options and women in leadership roles. Kraft has made Working Mother magazine's best places to work list for several years.
She said she's already received a good offer to become a Kraft associate brand manager. Yet she's also drawn to a job at an elite management consulting firm, despite what she sees as long hours and plentiful travel, and resulting postponement of marrying and starting a family for three or four years. She may make that tradeoff, she says, to gain "a platform to bigger and better things." She expects the work world to become more female-friendly because women see needed changes and work for them.
By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post