Until February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, a major war on the European continent had not happened since World War II (1939-1945). The second World War was a momentous turning point in history, with a global call to arms that would forever change the lives and roles of women in our country and world.
Until that time, few women worked outside the traditional matriarchal roles of wife, mother and community caretaker, or in paid clerical and health-related roles, such as nursing. In fact, in the early 20th century (1900-1935), only 5% of married U.S. women were “gainful workers,” as categorized back then by the Census Bureau for labor force participation outside the home.
World War II, out of necessity and forced discovery, proved that women could perform the work of men with equal ability…in defense plants, factories, the military, the aircraft industry and many other sectors – all while upholding their domestic responsibilities. U.S. women, nearly 350,000 of them, served in uniform both stateside and abroad, where they “repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, flew military aircraft, test-flew newly repaired planes, and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets.”
Despite the substantial roles women played in the Allied victory of WWII, social equality was slow to come for their sustained paid roles in professional sectors. However, when recognition and acceptance did emerge, the flood gates blew wide open, drawing women of all backgrounds to become doctors, lawyers, political icons, CEOs and even heads of state.
Yet decades later, gender equity challenges persist. McKinsey & Company’s 2021 Women in the Workplace, the largest study of women in corporate America, reveals that while women made key gains in representation across the corporate pipeline in 2020, “an encouraging sign and worth celebrating” after an incredibly difficult pandemic year, persistent gaps still remain.
Nevertheless, history shows us that significant gains in representation, importance, recognition and celebration of women’s contributions to the world will not be contained. In the larger picture, the wheels of progress have indeed turned fast.
Women’s History Week – then Month – became public law in short order
Women’s History Month began in 1978 as a local celebration in Santa Rosa, California, as Women’s History Week. Organizers chose the week of March 8, which marks International Women’s Day. The movement quickly spread, becoming a national celebration just three years later.
In 1981, Congress passed Public Law 97-28, authorizing the President to proclaim the week starting March 7, 1982, as Women’s History Week. And in 1987, after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project (now the National Women’s History Alliance), Congress passed Public Law 100-9, designating the full month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. Between 1988 and 1994, more congressional resolutions authorized the President to proclaim March of every year as Women’s History Month to recognize specific achievements women have made throughout American history in numerous fields.
A fitting theme for 2022: “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope”
Each year, the National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA) designates a theme for Women’s History Month. The theme for 2022, our country’s 34th annual celebration, is enormously apropos: Providing Healing, Promoting Hope. The NWHA says the theme is “both a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.”
Our heroes carried us through: Going into 2020, there were 22 million U.S. workers in the health care industry, one of our largest and fastest-growing sectors, accounting for 14% of all workers. Women represented three-quarters of full-time, year-round health care workers. Many have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, risking their lives to care for millions who have contracted the coronavirus. They work in hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, nursing and residential care facilities, and in social assistance roles, such as family and childcare services.
Our health care is primarily in women’s hands: The U.S. Census Bureau affirms the key role women have played in everyday health care needs associated with COVID-19. Women comprise 73% of health care practitioners and technical occupations identified as essential and make up an even larger proportion (86%) of essential health care support workers. Around 2.5 million of the United States’ full-time, year-round workers and 87% of registered nurses are women. Nurses have unquestionably borne the day-to-day brunt of the pandemic.
Female physicians are on the rise: The unintended consequences of the pandemic have impacted every area of life and created challenges for our women physicians, but there is good news. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) 2020 Physician Specialty Data Report, one of the steadiest movements in the United States’ evolving physician workforce has been the rise in women as a percentage of the total workforce, which rose from 28.3% in 2007 to 36.3% in 2020. This is the result of growth among female medical students, which in 2019 marked the first time the majority medical school students (50.5%) were women, signaling an even greater rise in female doctors upon their graduation.
We encourage everyone to join the national chorus this month in singing the praises of all women who have been ‘providing healing’ and ‘promoting hope’ during the pandemic!
We stand on the shoulders of many giants
History.com answers why we celebrate women every March: “Women’s History Month is a dedicated month to reflect on the often-overlooked contributions of women to United States history. From Abigail Adams to Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth to Rosa Parks, the timeline of women’s history milestones stretches back to the founding of the United States.”
We are their torchbearers: Across fields and industries, and throughout our society and culture, history richly documents women whose work, dedication, sacrifices and achievements have paved the way for every woman in our workforce and society today, and those to come. Men and women alike are stewards of the examples women leaders have set and their life work. Employers are also responsible for enriching our workforce, society and culture by recognizing and rewarding professional excellence without regard to gender, color or creed.
More and more employers are heeding the call: To determine the Best Workplaces for Women, each year Fortune partners with Great Place to Work, an authority on people analytics and workplace culture, to analyze employee feedback. The 2021 survey results (top-rated employers) represent feedback from 5.6+ million U.S. employees, basing 85% of the ranking on what women report about their workplaces. To be considered, companies need to at minimum employ at least 50 women, at least 20% of non-executive managers need to be female, and at least one executive must be female. Fifteen percent of the remaining rank is based on how well represented women are in the workforce and throughout management.
At Goodwin Recruiting, we salute these employers and celebrate the valuable contributions our women candidates and colleagues make to their organizations and professions – not just during the month of March but all year long. Happy Women’s History Month to every one of you!