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You've Come a Long Way, Baby—NOT!

Vivia Chen

February 7, 2013

Virginia-Slims-Cigarettes-?You?ve-come-a-long-way-baby?-1968If I read another article about how women are overtaking men and how little boys are falling hopelessly behind, I think I will explode. First, there was that Hanna Rosin piece in the Atlantic ("The End of Men"). Then just a few days ago, New York Times ran Cristina Hoff Sommers's warning about how schools don't support boys ("The Boys at the Back of the Class"). Maybe Rosin and Sommers are taking a very long view of gender history but from what I see, women aren't close to trouncing men. In some ways, women are as behind as ever.

Think I'm just blowing smoke? Look at the following:

1. Secretary is (still) the top job for women: Yup—more women work as secretaries than any other profession, reports a recent CNN Money post. That was true in 1950—and in 2010. According to the U.S. Census, CNN says "four million workers in the United States fell under the category of 'secretaries and administrative assistants' between 2006 and 2010, and 96 percent of them were women."

In fact, if you compare the top five jobs for women in 1950 versus 2010, you're bound to have a back-to-the-future experience. Just try to take a guess which list is from which year:

1. Secretary; bank teller or clerical worker; sales clerk; household worker; and teacher.

2. Secretary; cashier; elementary and middle school teacher; nurse; and nursing aide.

Not that it really matters, but the first list is the one from 1950. To add insult to injury, even in the female ghetto of secretarial work, men now make more. CNN Money reports that "full-time female secretaries and administrative assistants earned an average salary of $34,304 in 2010," while "for men, it was $39,641."

And what about the future? Will women break out of the dutiful, efficient stereotype as a helper/server to others? "Administrative assistant could very well continue to be the top job for women in 2020," reports CNN.

2. The gender gap starts early—really early. You don't have to wait until you're in the middle of your career to see a discrepancy in the pay between men and women. CNN Money reports that women working full-time jobs one year after their college graduation earned 82 cents for every dollar men make, according to a report from the American Association of University Women, which analyzed data from a 2009 Department of Education survey of 15,000 graduates.

3. The real kicker: Even women think women are less qualified.  In a Yale University study last year, science professors—male and female—"widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills," reports The New York Times.

In the study, biology, chemistry, and physics professors at six major research universities were asked to evaluate an application from a recent graduate to be a laboratory manager:

All of the professors received the same one-page summary, which portrayed the applicant as promising but not stellar. But in half of the descriptions, the mythical applicant was named John and in half the applicant was named Jennifer.

The result: John got a higher score ("4") for competence while Jennifer got a lower one ("3.3"). Moreover, "John was also seen more favorably as someone they might hire for their laboratories or would be willing to mentor." Their salaries differed significantly too: "The average starting salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. To John it was $30,328."

Though the experiment focused on the scientific academic community, my hunch is that the results would be essentially the same across a range of fields, including law. Come to think of it, it might be interesting to use the same experiment in a law firm context to see who wins the bonus or partnership prize—a kind of battle of the sexes contest.

That could be such fun! Too bad the outcome is so predictable.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected] 

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I agree with Hope, that the article was quite dismissive of women who choose to become secretaries or administrative assistants. And I agree with MIke that the statistical-based studies seem to never control for external factors, but that the Yale University study is quite convincing, and depressing. (And, wonder of wonders, Mark the troll never mentioned that study.)

For what it's worth, I'd like to humbly counter the reactionary voice of condescending privilege-blind men by saying that, while I appreciate Mark's thoughtful concern for the plight of our gender being forced to endure the inconvenience of treating women like people after such a long and fruitful history of domineering ascendancy, he does not speak for me. It sure is hard work not ever having to imagine what it must be like to not have male privilege, huh Mike?

Don't feel judged. There are many reasons that women opt to be in a more service oriented role. More women also work in the public sector, which pays less that the private sector.


The point is women are making less money but more households depend on the women's salary to make ends meet. It is important to your families bottom line that you get paid what you are worth.


I have worked in the legal industry for years and know many legal secretaries that are smarter than the attorneys they support. Their pay should reflect that but it doesn't.


What's worse is that a smart man who is a legal secretary is more likely to be promoted to a paralegal and the secretary isn't even given the option.


Great article with insights that should give all women something to think about.

Really, Mark? Real work? Last I checked, being an administrative assistant is "real work." Get real.

Usually I'm suspicious of female/male wage gap stories, mostly because of the utter lack of regard for comparing women and men in the same industry/ experience/ responsibility. For example, this: "CNN Money reports that women working full-time jobs one year after their college graduation earned 82 cents for every dollar men make, according to a report from the American Association of University Women, which analyzed data from a 2009 Department of Education survey of 15,000 graduates." That's an 18% difference, and is technically a true statement. But the real difference in the study (same jobs, hours, etc.) is 7%. "But even when controlling for these factors -- by looking at men and women with the same majors, jobs and hours -- women were still paid 7% less than men." If women dealing with this issue want some credibility, start quoting the 7% (likely real) number, not the 18% (likely suspect/fake) number.

That said, this should shock even the most suspicious: "The average starting salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. To John it was $30,328." That's just looks like bias to me.

Brilliant analysis, Vivia.

So a few million poor girlies are stuck at an air-conditioned desk answering phones for people who do real work.

I'll be sure to pass that horror story along to the tens of millions of men who endure back-breaking manual labor 40-60 hours a week... because, you know, they're all making high six figures.

I'll also let my fellow men that it's unfair that people who pursue less ambitious career tracks get paid less.

I'll also remind the free market that it's morally wrong for people who are likely to work longer and harder to be regarded as likely to work longer and harder -- because, you know, reality discriminates unacceptably.

Why am I even writing this? I know that you're not used to your ideas being subject to scrutiny or criticism, so you'll never approve this post.

Just like being a stay-at-home mom, becoming a clerical worker should be a choice. It's unfortunate that women are still being "tracked" into those jobs though. Another thought that might be relevant is that the clerical staff tend to lead more balanced lives. They are tied to their desks for 8-9 hours, but can leave their jobs at work. HR actually cares about how their treated and they have time for hobbies. Professional jobs have become all consuming, which is very challenging for women who still perform more than 1/2 of household and childrearing duties. Perhaps women are choosing those jobs? Just a thought.

Ummm, I am a legal secretary/assistant and I feel a little judged right Ms. Chen. I am proud of my accomplishments (always love your columns, might I add). That said, I am a little peeved that a mere man would STILL earn more than me in this day and age.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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