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Women's gains

Thestruggle for women's rights during the past decade has taken place on two crucial battlegrounds:

* The first is the political field - on which women's groups have sought legislation at both the federal and state levels to provide access to jobs and equal pay, and, where appropriate, have initiated court suits to win compensation for past acts of discrimination.

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* But there has been another - and more subtle - battleground as well: corporate America. During the past decade, thousands of women in the United States have won major management-level professional positions within the business community.

More often than not, public attention has focused on the feminist organizations that have been at the cutting edge of the political contest. But, as new US Census Bureau statistics released last week indicate, the professional women have been pioneers in their own right - and, through their examples of competence and leadership, have made significant progress in opening once-closed corporate doors for more and more women.

What is also clear - unfortunately - is that the business community needs to be far more aggressive than it has been in promoting women into senior and executive level posts, rather than leaving them in essentially dead-end middle-management positions, as is now too often the case.

According to the US Census Bureau, women held 31 percent of management jobs in 1980. That is up from 19 percent in 1970. And in some fields, such as technical jobs, women constitute between 40 and 50 percent of the work force.

The numbers, however, impressive as they are, need to be looked at more closely. As census analysts point out, the actual number of women in management circles was quite small a decade ago. Hence, the growth during the past decade comes on top of a very small base. Moreover, the period of the 1970s saw a large movement of women into the work force in general.

As pointed out by Fortune magazine (April 16), women, for all their impressive gains in winning mid-level management positions, are still not cracking open the doors to the corporate board room - or the top operating posts in most companies. Only one Fortune 500 company has a woman chief executive officer. And at no large corporation is a woman believed to be in the running for the top executive post.

Discrimination remains a problem. Pay scales for women are still below those of male executives. That is true throughout the work force - not just for women in management. And few corporations send women executives on to elite management training programs.

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Equally serious, there is much evidence that the federal government in both Democratic and Republican administrations has backed off from a strict enforcement of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 and other laws that bar discrimination against women in hiring and promotion policies. The Carter administration eased up on enforcing the act in the late 1970s, mainly because many companies found it necessary to retrench and shrink staffs as a response to the difficult economic situation of that time - including soaring inflation, rising interest rates, and a recession. And critics say the Reagan administration has been loath to antagonize the business community by aggressively enforcing equal-opportunity legislation. This should be redressed.

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