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A lifetime of work: Retirement-age women reflect on changes they've seen in the workplace over the decades

“Why are you here? Why aren’t you married?”

Judy Roitman recalls the young man’s hostile interrogation as not so much a question as an invitation to scram. It was 40-odd years ago, and, it was just one in a torrent of antagonistic remarks, dismissive looks and cold shoulders directed at her, but it lodged in her memory as emblematic.

“My stomach hurt every day in grad school,” she says of her years at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1970s. “It was terrible.”

She and the young man were fellow graduate students, in their 20s, and the answer to his question — why was she there instead of being married? — was that, like him, she wanted to be a mathematician. She wanted to have a career, and like many women of her generation — the first to enter the professional workplace in sizeable numbers — she saw no reason why she couldn’t do that and pursue all the other life experiences that were available to men, including having a family.

Roitman is 68 now. She retired this year from Kansas University, after a distinguished career that saw her become a fellow of the American Mathematical Society, an honor bestowed for outstanding contributions to the advancement of mathematics. And she’s also a grandmother.

As she looks back on the last half-century — and the kinds of incidents that might have derailed her dreams, that did in fact derail a lot of women’s dreams and that would be unthinkable to most young women entering today’s workplace — she beholds a “much better,” if far from perfect, world.

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Judy Roitman in 2014, left, and the mid-1970s, right.

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo, Contributed Photo

Born in New York City in 1945, Roitman grew up in a family where women did not have careers. They worked to earn money — her mother was a secretary and some of her aunts were teachers — but they all considered themselves “wives and mothers first” who worked for reasons that had little to do with self-fulfillment.

All through childhood, Roitman wanted to be a high school English teacher. She loved literature — she is now an accomplished poet — and teaching was an acceptable path for women. She held to that aspiration through her undergraduate years at Sarah Lawrence College, but then took a class in mathematics and discovered a talent and passion for the subject that eventually led her to Berkeley’s graduate school.

The almost all-male environment there was so hostile, she recalls, that “I’d whisper to a male student to ask a question for me in class” because the male instructor “did not take women seriously.”

Berkeley, despite its reputation as a bastion of progressiveness, had yet to hire a female math professor.

The wage gap

When the Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963, women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Today, women earn about 81 cents on the dollar. For black and Hispanic women, the gap is wider.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that it could take until 2056 — when today’s young workers are retirement age — for the wage gap to close.

“No one wanted to hear from you,” she says. “It was very clear that women had a place in the culture, and it was to serve men.”

Academic conferences, which should have been stimulating and productive for a young intellectual, were sometimes unbearable. “It was really awful the way women were talked about and talked to,” she says.

Three things happened to gradually turn the tide. She got a chance to study in Wisconsin with an eminent mathematician who happened to be a woman; she got recruited to be the first female tenure-track research professor in KU’s math department; and little by little she got more and more female colleagues.

Roitman describes the University of Wisconsin’s math department in the early ‘70s as a kind of sanctuary in a sea of sexism. “It was exceptional,” she says, and she attributes that to the energetic presence of Mary Ellen Rudin, a distinguished mathematician who presided in the department “like a force of nature.” In such an environment, one could focus, at long last, on mathematics, not gender.

Then, coming to Kansas in the late ‘70s, Roitman was relieved to find “a kind of decency here.” Her male colleagues at KU weren’t exactly “women’s libbers,” but here’s the important thing: She felt that they wanted her to succeed.

“I felt very supported here,” she says, “but I was clearly considered different.” A novelty.

When did that change? When the department hired a third woman, in 1988.

“If there are two women, everyone’s watching to see if they agree, if they get along,” Roitman says. “Once you have three women, suddenly it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s ‘just one of the guys’ then.”

KU’s math department now has seven female tenure-track professors and another coming in 2015, out of about 30 total. It’s nowhere near half, but Roitman at least has to stop to count them — and has to use both hands.

As Roitman embarks on her first year of retirement, it was announced last month that Maryam Mirzakhani had become the first woman in history to win the Fields Medal, the most coveted prize in mathematics. Roitman was elated — another sign of progress, even if “it took them way too long.”

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Susan Hadl in 2014, left, and on patrol in 1982, right.

Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo, Contributed Photo

If you asked Susan Hadl “Why are you here?” you’d get a three-word response: “The Mod Squad.”

The late-‘60s TV show about hip young cops, one of them a woman, made her want to be one. Desperately.

“I felt called,” she says with a chuckle of embarrassment. So that’s what she did. She became a cop. And she loved it.

“I was in seventh heaven,” she says. But the joy she has always felt in realizing her lifelong goal doesn’t tempt her to downplay the difficulties she encountered as one of the first female officers on the Lawrence Police Department.

Hadl, 56, graduated from Lawrence High School in 1975 and pursued degrees in crime studies and Spanish and, later, a master’s degree in social work at KU, all with an eye to getting into law enforcement. She got her foot in the door at the Lawrence Police Department as a civilian crime prevention coordinator in 1979, and when the opportunity shortly arose to go to the Police Academy, she leapt at it.

“I just assumed that I was as welcome as the next person, as welcome as the man standing next to me,” she says.

She was wrong. Closed minds were more plentiful than open arms, despite her good marks in training. And she was alone. Her attempts to establish camaraderie with fellow cadets were misconstrued as romantic overtures. A male instructor even accused her of having an affair with a male classmate who simply had dared to befriend her “as a fellow Christian.” She was chastised for the nonexistent affair, she says, and was told to end it. Nothing was said to her alleged partner in impropriety.

That sexualized dynamic followed her into the police force, where she said it was a “constant battle” to be recognized as just one of the officers doing a job. “People assumed I was having (improper) relationships when I was just seeking friendships like everyone else.”

“Some of the men,” she said of her early career, “would openly make fun of you. They made (unprintable) comments indicating they had other ideas about what women should be doing. Some simply would not speak to you.”

There were large indignities and small. When she was partnered with a man for patrol, the man always drove the car, she said.

What did she do about it? “Nothing,” she says. Lodging a complaint would have just isolated her further — a sentiment familiar to many women working in that era. “I tried to make the best of the situation and always improve myself.”

And she did rise in the department eventually, becoming its first female sergeant, in 1991. Like Roitman, she describes the turning point as when other women began to be hired and promoted. When a second female officer made the rank of sergeant, she felt she had a “comrade,” and her own presence began to feel more normal, less novel.

When she retired three years ago, she was lauded by Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib for her many accomplishments, including her involvement with the force’s critical-response team, her certification as a hostage negotiator and her expertise in the area of domestic violence.

Still a problem

Flagrant sexism in the workplace has dramatically diminished in the 50 years since the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that prohibited discrimination based on sex and that established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Title VII has done a lot of good,” says Kansas University law professor Elinor Schroeder. “It has done away with a lot of overt discrimination and has opened up the workforce and eliminated a lot of invidious employment practices.”

But sexual discrimination and harassment are “still an enormous problem,” says Schroeder, who specializes in employment law.

In 2013, the EEOC, which handles such claims, saw close to 28,000 filed charges of sex discrimination, 7,256 charges of sexual harassment and 3,541 charges of pregnancy discrimination.

She in turn lauds the department today.

“It has come a long way,” she says. “The current leadership is well aware of the importance of recruiting, retaining and promoting women.”

The department now has 18 female officers, which, according to spokesman Sgt. Trent McKinley, amounts to almost 12 percent of the total.

Hadl talks glowingly about her career but does regret that she never made the rank of captain.

“I hit that glass ceiling,” she says, attributing her failure to rise higher not to sexual discrimination so much as to “sexual omission,” or a kind of invisibility, especially through the early years, the feeling that “no one wanted to groom you for higher things.” She acknowledges that promotion decisions are complex, and she hates sour grapes. It’s just that, she says, ”I always felt in my heart that I could do what I saw them doing.”

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Dana Hale in 2014, left, and during her 43-year career as a nurse, right.

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo, Contributed Photo

No one asked Dana Hale “Why are you here?”

Of course she was there. She was a nurse, and nurses were always women. But this nurse wasn’t a nurse because of her gender. Or because she needed to earn money.

“I did not have to work,” says Hale, 66. “I was the first woman in my family that went out and worked. I remember my mother thinking that was so unnecessary.”

She was a nurse because she wanted to be one, having acquired the idea from her grandmother, who longed to be a nurse “but never got the opportunity.”

The choice turned out to be “a great fit” for Hale, and she stuck with the profession for 43 years, retiring this year as vice president of nursing at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

In those four-plus decades, she saw changes in the profession she couldn’t have imagined in the beginning.

“Back then you were a hospital nurse or an office nurse,” she says. “That was it.”

And your duties were limited to “basic type of care”: bathing patients, passing pills, taking vital signs. You did not infringe on the doctor’s domain, not even in matters — like wound care, for example — that today are routinely handled by nurses. If you did infringe, or were perceived to have, you could expect a verbal lashing.

“Doctors could yell at nurses then. That just happened,” she says, adding that now “such behavior would be addressed” and “nurses feel more comfortable reporting hostile behavior,” in part because there’s a greater level of confidence that wrongs will be righted.

Hale’s first job was as a hospital nurse at KU Medical Center.

She was required to wear white starched dresses — not always convenient for the crouching and bending the job required — with hosiery and a cap. Her “clinic shoes” were hard-soled, lace-up affairs. The practical scrubs and casual shoes demanded by a later generation were unheard of.

Doctors on staff expected, and were shown, great deference, even in matters not pertaining to medical care.

“When I first started, you always gave up your chair in the nurse’s station when a doctor came in," she says.

Because almost all doctors were men and all nurses women, such routines inevitably had an air of female subservience. Now that a third of doctors are female and 10 percent of nurses are male, that dynamic has greatly diminished, Hale says. And more people are likely to say simply “doctor” and “nurse” rather than “female doctor” or “male nurse.”

And the money has gotten a lot better. When she first started, Hale says, “the pay wasn’t very good, but now it’s the type of salary a breadwinner would have.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the median salary for a registered nurse in 2012 was $65,470.

Besides the growing gender parity, one of the great developments in the profession, Hale says, has been the “explosion in technology” that has expanded opportunities for nurses. Whereas in her younger days, nurses were either “hospital or office” with very limited duties, now there’s a wide variety of nursing specialties — flight nurse, perinatal nurse, nurse midwife, nurse anesthetist, to name just a few.

“It’s been very gradual,” she says, “but nurses are now trusted to do things” and they’ve become crucial in nearly ever aspect of health care.

“When doctors and nurses work together,” she adds, getting to the bottom line, “the care is better.”

And, as the last 50 years have shown, when men and women work together, life is.

Comments

Ken Lassman

KU, of course, was no different way back when. When my Mom went to KU during World War II, the student population was depleted by many potential male students going off to war. As a result, on the surface, female college students were very much welcomed and my Mom went to the Business School to major in business with no resistance. But when it became time to graduate and various businesses came to recruit the students, she was never invited to meet with them. When she went to the dean of the school to inquire why this was (she was a great student), she was told in no uncertain terms that as a woman, she had no place in the Business community except as a secretary. So she found a job as a clerk at the County Courthouse, a job she kept until she started her family. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like had attitudes at KU had been different and she had been able to use her education differently....

3 years, 9 months ago

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Clark Coan

Things didn't really start to change in Lawrence and KU until the February Sisters occupied a building at KU and issued demands.

The 1972 Equal Rights Amendment was only three states short of passage (Kansas ratified it), but the movement toward equality continued anyway.

Of course there is still the glass ceiling and wage parity hasn't been achieved.

"You've come a long way, baby."

3 years, 9 months ago

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