Gender portion of Civil Rights bill often overlooked - KMSP-TV

Gender portion of Civil Rights bill often overlooked

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago, the focus was on racial discrimination. A ban on sex discrimination was added to the bill almost as an afterthought.

"Howard Smith, who was a conservative democrat from West Virginia, introduced an amendment to add sex discrimination, and people scratched their heads --"What was this about?" said Jay Readey, executive director of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Because Howard Smith was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 many thought he was hoping to kill the entire Civil Rights package by adding that language.

But the bill passed.

Sherry Rothenberg, who is now an employment discrimination attorney in Chicago, was just entering law school. "When I started practicing I knew virtually all the women lawyers in Chicago. There were that few. And the world has changed, and I think it's because of the Civil Rights Act." said Rothenberg. Allegations of sex discrimination, however, are still fairly common.

"There was an immediate influx of sex discrimination claims. The concern we have is that 50 years later, they haven't abated. So at the Chicago Committee for Civil Rights, we take in five or 10 sex discrimination claims each month." said Readey.

"There still is a dominant male culture in the executive suite, and at the highest levels of academia. Despite the fact there are many women presidents of major universities, and scholars of equal rank, they often are treated shabbily." added Rothenberg.

On Monday, President Obama is expected to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors against gay, lesbian, bisexuals and transgender employees. Sherry Rothenberg said the '64 ban on sex discrimination provided momentum for those movements too. "The women's movement sort of set the stage. Alright, hey, a woman can now be in charge here. Why can't a gay person be in charge?" said Rothenberg.

Efforts toward gender equality these days take many shapes and forms.

For example, at Northwestern University, there are special programs to steer young women toward engineering departments that are dominated by males.

"I think a lot of female students want to help other people and improve the lives of somebody else," said Ellen Worsdall, an assistant dean at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. "And they don't immediately think they can do that with an engineering degree. But you definitely can."

Worsdall said a three-day summer program puts seventh, eighth and ninth grade girls in workshops, where they see that the negative stereotypes they've heard about high-tech careers just aren't true.

"I think some of the negative stereotypes are that if you're an engineer, you're not going to interact with other people, you're just going to spend a lot of time, by yourself, maybe, in a small cubicle with a big calculator. And the reality is, it couldn't be further from the truth. As an engineer, you're engaging in a team, you're working with other people, and you're having an opportunity to literally prove and change somebody's life." said Worsdall.


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