Equal access to luggage bins is not the same as equal pay

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May 26, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

A bitter lesson for \'70s feminists

When the women\'s movement began in earnest more than 30 years ago, one of its chief goals was for women to be treated the same as male co-workers. Depending on what study you choose to pay attention to, that goal - at least pay-wise - is far from being achieved. However, in other ways, we have definitely achieved equality; for example, men seem to be completely at peace and accepting of a woman\'s right to be equally uncomfortable.

Back in the \'70s we had an easy, defiant and very clear way of shouting our desire to be treated as equals: we stomped the living daylights out of any guy, at any time, who had the audacity to try to open a door, give up a bus seat, or pull out our chair in a restaurant.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Jennifer went on a business trip with her right hand in a soft cast from recent carpal tunnel surgery. It was impossible for her to negotiate her suitcase in the overhead bin. \"Can you believe not one guy offered to help me?\" she said with some disgust.

\"Well, actually,\" I said, \"I can imagine that scenario. I also think we did it to ourselves. We were the ones constantly saying \'thanks, but no thanks, I can do that myself.\'\"

As the Chinese proverb goes, be careful for what you wish, it may come true. Some studies may say we don\'t have equal pay, but we definitely have the right to open our own door, stand on crowded buses and struggle with the overhead bin on an airplane.

Sitting in the gate area for a flight to Chicago this week, I had a chance to ask a group of business travelers about the changing role of chivalry in corporate America.

\"I would never offer to help a woman get her suitcase in an overhead bin,\" said the first guy. \"In today\'s world it would be perceived as interfering with their private space.\"

The other guy in this group looked somewhat sheepish as he explained, \"I always offer to help women get their suitcases in the overhead bin, and I still open doors for female coworkers. I can\'t help it. That\'s how I was raised. But,\" he added, \"women rarely say thank-you.\"

Tracy, an executive search consultant, said she\'s observed another phenomenon about women and opening doors. Tracy makes a point of getting to the door first and holding it open for her client - male or female. \"However,\" she says, \"many women do a very curious thing. They race for the door, go through first, and then hold the door for everyone else. Why can\'t they hold the door and go in after everyone else?\"

Does Alpha female ring a bell?

Back on the airplane I was about to reach for my suitcase, when I overheard a conversation between the man and woman in front of me. The guy asked if he could get the woman\'s bag down.

\"No, thank you,\" she said, \"I can get it myself.\"

I couldn\'t resist. Out in the gate area I stopped them and asked the woman why she wouldn\'t let her coworker get her bag.

\"He had a lot of his own stuff to carry,\" she said.

It may seem silly now, this adamant desire to refuse chivalrous behavior. But in the \'70s it felt very significant. We were sure that making statements about being able to hoist our own luggage would result in equal opportunities at work and equal pay. Now we\'ve won the symbolic battle, when the real one rages on.

If you have a good workplace dilemma or just a good story to tell, please contact Elana Centor at ecentor@mn.rr.com. You can remain confidential, as can your company.