One reason for that broadly shared sense of expanding vistas: Two-thirds of women said they have obtained more education than their mother did. “I’ve definitely had more opportunity than my mother did,” Kuhnen says. “My mother got married when she was 19 years old, and she had five children. It was a different day and age. She didn’t get the opportunity to go to college. I think she would have liked that. I don’t think she necessarily wanted to have five children, but that’s just how things were.”
Most women in the workforce, the poll found, don’t see gender as a barrier to their advancement. Three-fourths of women who are either working outside the home now, or have done so in the past, said that in their own workplace they can “advance as far as their talents would take [them]” regardless of their sex. Once again, that sentiment is virtually as strong among noncollege as college-educated women, and among nonwhite as white women. Similarly, 71 percent of women who are working or have worked said they have not been personally discriminated against, including being denied promotions or raises. “At this time, women really have as much opportunity [as men],” says Reading, the former construction-company executive. “I could see other women in my field, who took the chance in a field that was dominated by men, and I could see them succeed. If they could show and shine where I worked, they definitely had an opportunity.” Amy McElroy, a Coast Guard officer from Springfield, Va., agrees. “I haven’t experienced any discrimination,” she says. “I haven’t experienced a situation where my gender has played a role in preventing me from meeting my goals.”
Even so, a substantial 27 percent of women said they have faced discrimination in the workplace. Sharon Bridges, a retired telecommunications worker in Gahanna, Ohio, is one who believes that women still are often treated unfairly. “For 35 years I worked in a large corporation,” she says. “From the day I started there until I retired, it was very clear to me that men were making more. Some of us were working side by side with them. And I always thought that was very unfair.”
College-educated working women were considerably more likely than those without degrees to say they had been discriminated against at work. That finding may help explain why the poll found only modest optimism about women’s ability to crack the glass ceiling—the tendency for women’s careers to stall out before they can reach the pinnacle of public and private office. Told that women account for less than 3 percent of the chief executives at Fortune 500 companies, just 41 percent of women said they considered that very likely to change. A slightly larger, but still restrained, 49 percent of women said they considered it very likely that women will hold more public offices in the future. Only 39 percent of women said it’s very likely that the nation will have a female president. For many women, it seems, the sense of expanding opportunity expires above a certain level of influence. “It’s a well-known fact that for women in corporate management, the numbers are slim and not really growing,” says Mary Beth Morabito, a homemaker in Novi, Mich. “The glass ceiling still exists in 2012.”
JUGGLING WORK AND FAMILY
Two large clouds loom over this generally positive landscape of widening options for women. One is the financial strain facing many Americans, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession that began in December 2007. The other is the intertwined challenge of juggling work and family at a time when many families need two incomes to pay their bills. Tellingly, when asked whether they found themselves worrying more about “financial issues like earning enough money … and keeping up with bills and expenses” or “personal issues like being able to spend time with family, taking care of children … and having time for yourself,” both men and women divided nearly in half between the two choices.
Each of these challenges affects men and women. But for families with children, the strain of balancing the demands of home and work still falls most heavily on women. On a variety of fronts, the poll found women in such families making greater accommodations to meet such demands.
For instance, 44 percent of women who have ever worked outside the home said that at some point in their career they had left the workforce for a period longer than a maternity leave to care for young children. Only 6 percent of men concurred. Even more strikingly, 63 percent of women with children said they were more active than their spouse in the care of their children; just 1 percent said their spouse took a greater role, while 33 percent said they shared the responsibilities equally. Men, not surprisingly, demur: Just 35 percent of men agreed that their spouse shouldered more responsibility; a 52 percent majority insisted they accepted equal responsibility.