March is Women’s History Month in the United States. The rest of the western world celebrates International Women’s day, but in the States, we get a whole month.
I remember getting on a plane from Germany to Switzerland years ago. It was a small, 30-ish seater with a single flight attendant. She began her announcements “Ladies and gentleman…uh…” looking around she noticed that she was the only woman on board that morning and corrected herself: “Gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts low across….”
Just last week on two different flights in Germany I noticed nearly the same thing. This time there were a few women in business attire in the pre-flight waiting area and a few on the planes, but there weren’t any in all of the meetings I attended, save for the few who brought coffee. There were several women, clearly hired for the purpose, promoting products, at an embedded systems conference in Nürnberg, and definitely quite a few professionals working the show alongside their male colleagues; although both models and professionals were vastly outnumbered by men. I could make some joke here about about it being a very geeky conference, but, how should that possibly matter?
Returning to the U.S. I flew over Philadelphia to Denver on a Saturday afternoon. Not exactly a prime business travel time slot, yet still, there were more women on the plane and a significant part of them were in business mode; studying engineering fundamentals for an educational conference (in the seat next to me) or still wearing suits and business clothes while traveling alone; just as many of the men were.
Mine are hardly scientific observations, but it appears there are more women in these professional jobs, the kind of jobs that require one to visit with clients a plane ride away from where they live, in the United States. Often these jobs are granted a considerable amount of responsibility, and frequently are paid accordingly. Of course women work in Europe, but, in my observation, it’s hard to see them managing to make as much headway as their American colleagues are.
Policy might have something to do with it. I still remember my German colleague who one day exclaimed in exasperation “that’s it, I’m not hiring any more women of child bearing age!” I was surprised to hear this from a professional woman! but she was simply tired of the women she hired quitting on her on a few months later to have children and receive maternity leave. The German system is very generous to young mothers giving them 14 paid weeks of maternity leave. A system meant to protect women backfires against them by discouraging their hiring in the first place.
Policy may contribute to European women seeming to trail behind American women in professional representation, but it’s as likely to do with different social priorities, or, my best guess, far less social mobility, which means European women will get there, they’ll just take longer. Things take much longer to change in Europe, for good and ill.
Back in the United States, I wonder if I should send a happy women’s month e-mail to my boss? Nah, she’s too geeky to be interested in that sort of thing.