How Working Women in the '90s Impacted the Workplace

How Working Women in the '90s Impacted the Workplace

Posted by Lee Yarborough on 12/7/22 2:30 PM
Lee Yarborough
Find me on:
Posted on: December 7, 2022

From the EEOC, Family Leave Act, and fight for equal pay, the 1990s was a decade of progress for working women. 

Choosing the Right PEO

The women who came to age in the 1990s were the first generation of American women who had not been told their only place was in the home. They saw themselves reflected on television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Princess Warrior, and Sex and the City. This generation had been entitled to the educational and career opportunities their mothers had fought for, and they took them for granted. Even though young women agreed that the work of the women’s movement had helped their lives, they were hesitant to call themselves feminists. Gail Collins said it best, “Work was not something you fought for the right to do; it was something you just did.”

In 1991, two-thirds of married women with children worked, and the increased costs of homes and college education demanded two incomes. In fact, college tuition was rising three times faster than household incomes. On average, married women in the 90s provided 41% of a family’s income, and in almost a quarter of households, the woman earned more than the husband. 

AdobeStock_166997997_01The Work/Family Divide. In 1989, consultant, Felice Schwartz, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review highlighting ways that corporations could retain employees who were also mothers. Schwartz suggested flexible hours, job sharing, and childcare services. She also suggested that businesses should divide female employees into two groups – one group as “career and family” and the other as “career-primary.” Her idea was that the companies would know which “track” women were on and could be more efficient and promoted accurately. The New York Times dubbed it the “Mommy Track,” which caused great controversy. The idea that motherhood could create a slower track at work infuriated women, and many asked why it assumed that the mother, not the father, must choose a track. A coalition of 44 national women’s groups denounced the concept. However, it was a debate that would continue and still does. For all that the women’s movement had accomplished, it never solved the work/family divide.

Job Protected Unpaid Leave. Families benefited from the enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. This law requires covered employers to provide employees with job-protected, unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. Although this law does not cover everyone, it allows new mothers and fathers in large companies to take time off to be with their babies and have their job protected. This is an important step in solving the problem of the Mommy Track. 

➡️➡️Read More:  1970s: A Decade of Change

Equal Opportunity Protection. Sexual harassment has been around since the beginning of time. The EEOC was formed in 1965, and one of its tasks was to handle sexual harassment complaints. Unfortunately, most were dismissed without being investigated, and there was little public awareness of the problem. However, in 1991, that changed when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Ironically, Hill had worked for Thomas in two federal agencies, including the EEOC. The public confirmation hearing created a stir, and the public was very divided. However, Hill’s testimony allowed space for more women to tell their stories and created a greater awareness of where women were missing, such as in the halls of Congress.

The Year of the Woman. 1992 was called the Year of the Woman, the number of women in the House increased from 28 to 47, and 6 women were added to the Senate. Betty Friedan died in 2006 at age 85, and she should have been proud of the work that she and her fellow activists had created in society. At the beginning of the new century, women made up almost half the medical and law school students. Forty percent of the new dental school graduates were women. The number of women in science had risen to 20 percent, up from 3% in the 1960s. Even in the exclusive world of symphonies, women made up a third of the chairs in the top orchestras. More than 56% of college students were female, and their graduation rates were better than men’s. 

AdobeStock_236067772_01Yet, there was still a lot of work to be done. In 2005, only 17% of partners in major law firms were women. While women represented nearly half of lower-management jobs, only a handful were CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. Of workers making between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, three-quarters were male. 

The Fight for Pay Equity. Pay equity has always been an issue, and it continues to be. Simply put, pay equity is compensating employees the same for the same or similar work regardless of gender, race, age, or other discriminatory reason. At the start of the twenty-first century, women were paid only 80 cents for every dollar men were paid. Some of the differences in the wage gap are the prevalence of women in lower-paying jobs, which have traditionally been female, such as teaching. Other factors include age, with younger women closing the wage gap more quickly. Unfortunately, discrimination and societal norms still play a part in the disparity. 

In 2007, the Supreme Court was asked to review the case between Lilly Ledbetter and Goodyear Tire regarding pay discrimination. Lilly Ledbetter had worked at Goodyear Tire for 19 years. As a woman in a traditionally male business, she had endured discrimination and tough days at work but understood that was part of the job and overall felt like things were fair if you worked hard. When she was about to retire as a supervisor, she received an anonymous note informing her that she was making much less money than her male counterparts. Realizing the impact this would have on her retirement, Ledbetter filed a claim with the EEOC. Goodyear offered her $10,000 to settle the claim, and after additional negotiation that went nowhere, Ledbetter went to court. The jury awarded her more than $3 million in damages which were reduced to the $360,000 federal law limit. Goodyear appealed, arguing that federal law required her to file the complaint within the statute of limitations or 180 days from the first time the discrimination occurred.

➡️➡️Read More: 12_Climbing the Ladder and Having it ALL

The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, which sided with Goodyear in a 5 to 4 decision that the 180-day deadline applied to the date of her first discrimination. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was so angry about the decision that she read her dissent from the bench, “In our view, the Court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” As a result, Ledbetter lost her entire financial award and had to pay some of Goodyear’s court costs.

Her case inspired Congress to act, and in 2009, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill that President Barack Obama signed into law. It amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which states that the 180-day statute of limitations resets with each new discriminatory paycheck issued. Ledbetter continues to be an activist, fighting for equal rights and equal pay. 

AdobeStock_333842611_01The fight for equal pay continues today. On average, women in the U.S. make 17% less than men and even more for women of color. The pay gap persists regardless of education level. It is more important than one paycheck, and this difference creates a loss of close to a million dollars over the working lifetime of a woman. Women are the breadwinners in over half the families in the U.S., and the difference in pay translates to real needs for families. In South Carolina, the wage gap is larger than the national average. Here, women earn 73.4 cents on every dollar that men earn. 

Women in the Workforce: We Can Do It!

Whether married or single, with children or not, working part-time, full-time, or even two jobs, as a stay-at-home mom or a community volunteer, American women can do it! Throughout history, American women always have. And I am so proud we do! Over the next few months, I will explore how topics about women in the workforce from the early 1900s until the present. Also, I want to note the changing trends of women in the workforce that this series contemplates will focus on white, middle-class women. Women of color have had very different experiences, and their work lives have been defined by racism, sexism, and financial necessity. I have pointed this out when possible, but please keep in mind that this series is not a complete picture of all women. 

This is Part 13 of a 14-part series, Women in the Workforce: We Can Do It!, which explores topics related to the history, challenges, and accomplishments of working women in America. Topics to date include: 01_Women in the Workforce: We Can Do It!, 02_The War Opens the Doors for Working Women, 03_Rise of Jobs, Rise of Inequality,  04_Working Women and The Great Depression, 05 The Rise of Female Empowerment, 06_Stay Home or Be Paid Less  07_A Woman's Place, 08_The Myth of the Ideal Woman, 09_Is This All?,10_Women’s Lib Movement and the Fight for Equal Rights, 11_1970s:ADecadeofChange, and 12_Climbing the Ladder and Having it ALL

Propel HR President Lee Yarborough

Lee Yarborough_PHR_01“My father, Braxton Cutchin, and I founded the company in 1996. After being in the PEO and HR world for 25 years, I have experienced firsthand the value we can provide to both the clients and the employees. It is truly a win for all parties. I’m proud to have helped establish Propel HR as an industry forerunner in the Southeast. There is nothing I love more than receiving phone calls from clients who seek my advice as a trusted advisor. This is a business where I feel that I can help others, and that is important to my own value.”

-- Lee Yarborough, President, Propel HR

Active in many professional and community organizations, Lee recently served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO). As NAPEO Chair, Lee focused on diversity and initiatives to deepen member relations. Under her leadership, she formed Women in NAPEO (WIN), a networking group designed to engage, empower, and encourage women working in the PEO industry. On the local level, Lee also served as the Chair of NAPEO’s Carolinas Leadership Council for more than a decade. In 2015, she was named a Fellow of the eleventh class of the Liberty Fellowship Program and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

An advocate for public education, Lee has served on the executive board as Chair of Public Education Partners and is the founder and director of Read Up Greenville, a young adult and middle grades book festival in downtown Greenville, SC.

When she breaks from board meetings, client visits, and networking, most likely, you will find Lee reading, camping, or spending time with her family. She also enjoys volunteering at her church and staying involved with her children's schools.Choosing the Right PEOAbout Propel HR. Propel HR is an IRS-certified PEO that has been a leading provider of human resources and payroll solutions for more than 25 years. Propel partners with small to midsized businesses to manage payroll, employee benefits, compliance and risks, and other HR functions in a way that maximizes efficiency and reduces costs. Visit our new website,

Topics: Featured, Women

Subscribe to our Blog for Fresh Weekly Content

Your HR Checklist For Q3

Stay up to date with new laws, deadlines and important changes related to payroll, ... Read More

PEOs are in the Business of Small Business

PEOs play a vital role in helping small businesses across the country thrive and survive.  Read More

3 New Employment Laws That Could Impact Your Business

New changes in three employment laws may have a significant impact on your business. ... Read More


HR Division of Propel HR

The HR Division is made up of a team of professionals with a vast level of experience and HR expertise, assisting organizations of all sizes and within a wide variety of industries. They readily partner with clients to address strategic and compliance challenges surrounding the employment life-cycle and the ever-changing laws that regulate it. Inquire below about how they can help you!