A Woman in the Workforce: A Personal Story

I grew up knowing Janice Engel as my sassy and loving grandmother. We baked treats, painted with Bob Ross and laughed together. I cherish every weekend we got to spend side by side whether it was feeding the ducks or snooping around yard sales hoping to find a good deal.

 She was always helping someone and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. What I didn’t know growing up—and for many subsequent years after her death—was the life she lived before being my grandmother. The life many working women of the 1900’s lived day in and day out.

My grandmother Janice was a true novelty of her time. She was smart, witty and unconventional—especially as a divorced, working mom of three. Her friends described her as extremely talented and artistic with an interesting sense of humor—all traits I remember well. At the time of her death, her extraordinary paintings were split up among close relatives and friends.

Painting: Janice Engel

Image Credit: Paula (Engel) Rainey

While in her twenties, Janice received some college education and went on to become a successful graphic designer. She worked for many well-known companies including Hanford and Battelle, creating detailed hand-drawn product designs and models. Despite her obvious talents, she faced several challenges in the workplace, much of which came from her being a woman.

At least one boss told her to her face that the company couldn’t pay her the same amount as her male counterparts doing the same job. They claimed that the higher wages had to go to men supporting families, clearly overlooking the fact that Janice was supporting her three children on her own without a stay at home parent to keep things nice and orderly. The answer was simple—men got paid more for the same amount of work because their gender took priority in the workplace.

Despite the setbacks, Janice worked feverishly to complete additional work her bosses gave her on top of her regular duties. Eventually, my grandmother went on to work for a better company who valued her experience and expertise and compensated her fairly. 

Thanks to my grandmother’s example of hard work and self-respect, I continue to see possibilities, possibilities she could never even dream of in her lifetime. I find value in helping those around me and am not afraid to share my talents in the workplace.

And when my mom told me this story, I began to see for the first time in my life a blunt example of gender discrimination in the workplace that directly impacted my family. Interestingly, as my mom recalled the events, she spoke as if they were normal and almost acceptable for the time period, but always with a distaste.

Fortunately, we are finally starting to see a positive shift in these cultural views—views that define women to certain roles and limit their potential. This shift needs to continue. People, regardless of their gender, deserve the right to equal and fair pay based on their skills. And change often starts with educating and sometimes reeducating ourselves.