Sunday, October 4, 2009

Women are almost half the workforce: why is this bad news?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I just returned from my grandmother's 92nd birthday party, where I found myself trying to explain to her that yes, indeed she is a feminist (this, surprisingly, was not a hard sell), and ended up hearing some heartbreaking stories about her experiences as a teacher in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was still against the rules to smoke, drink or get married. Although she wasn't one of them, my grandmother had colleagues who were forced out of their jobs because they got pregnant, or even because there was a man who wanted their position, regardless of whether he was better qualified. She was paid something like $1,200 a year (when the average salary in 1950 was almost $3,000) and finally quit her job for 19 years after my aunt, her first daughter, was born.

I was thinking about all of this when I came across Lisa Belkin's article in today's NYT mag. Belkin had some good news, and some bad news. The good news? Women are almost half the workforce - the numbers are so close that they may actually be half the workforce as you read this. This seems to be a fairly significant accomplishment, considering that women were only 34.9 percent of the working population 40 years ago.

We joyfully begin uncorking the champagne, and then Belkin reveals the bad news: it turns out that this good news isn't really all that good. Why are women gaining their place in the workforce? Mostly because men are the ones who are suffering during the recession - 78 percent of the jobs lost were held by men. And it's not necessarily because women are being retained over their male colleagues - they're being kept on because women are cheap. And because they're concentrated in lower-paying industries like health care and education, where there have been fewer layoffs. And because, Belkin claims, women are more willing to settle for less. Belkin quotes Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, who says that "women might be seen as less resentful about taking a job with less money and authority, and they might also be less likely to bolt if something better comes along."

Ironically, it might be better if women were losing jobs at the same rate as men. That might prove some kind of parity. As it is, women are still earning 78 cents on average for every dollar earned by a man, but this breaks down differently state by state, and there are some places where it particularly sucks to be female. Wyoming, for example, where women earn 64 cents to a man's dollar.

So it's definitely not good news that women may be turning into the primary breadwinners, if they're still earning 20% less than the men who are losing their jobs. We can't recover from the recession quickly if this is the story behind the statistics - or if men are simply restored to their jobs. Pay equity is the only solution, something we hoped for in the wake of the Lilly Ledbetter Act earlier this year. But until we have that, let's not wave around these statistics to prove that women have finally broken the glass ceiling.


At October 5, 2009 at 2:07 PM , Anonymous TDR said...

There's an even more fundamental question I'd like to ask: Is it really true that the United States is hostile to working mothers? The question itself seems ridiculous, in light of European family policies. And yet, here's an interesting tidbit from Lerner's article:

"While an American woman still typically has around 2.1 children over her lifetime, in other rich countries, family size has dropped significantly as women have gained access to jobs and education. More than 90 nations throughout Europe and Asia now have fertility rates well below ours. Second, even while we’ve continued to raise sizable families, American women have achieved the very highest rate of full-time employment in the world, with 75 percent of employed women working full-time."

So while the United States is supposedly so bad for working mothers, the women (1) have more kids, and (2) work more. At least superficially, then, it seems that their revealed preference shows that the U.S. is better for working mothers, not worse.

Now, one can certainly argue against this behavioral argument. Maybe men in the U.S. are so poorly paid relative to Europeans that the women have to work. (I think this is clearly untrue.) Or maybe the lack of universal health care means people don't want to risk only having one person with employer-provided insurance (more plausible to me). But the burden of proof is clearly on those who claim the U.S. is on a whole worse for working mothers, since so many more of them seem to be choosing the lifestyle. And the question of how the U.S. might really be better for working women is an interesting one, but one I think I'll defer, since this is getting long already.

At October 5, 2009 at 2:11 PM , Blogger Peter said...

It is extremely ungrateful to complain about these things when men ARE LOSING THEIR JOBS and women are not. Leaving aside the fact that differences in pay disappear once education and different work-life preference is accounted for, this attitude reveals a zero-sum attitude in which men count for nothing and, indeed, are the enemy. The sacking of men is a opportunity to "uncork the champagne." Disgusting.

At October 5, 2009 at 9:43 PM , Blogger Amelia said...


I don't think you're really trying to engage here (mostly because you misattribute the "uncorking of the champagne" - it's to women being half the workforce, and nowhere do I say that I'm happy that men are losing their jobs), but I'm going to respond anyway because I don't like being called "disgusting" when I write about very simple things like equal pay. I'm really supposed to be "grateful" when women are still earning 20% less than men? You think that's some kind of blessing - people have deigned to allow women into the workforce and have been generous enough to pay them less than men?

I write that it's a BAD thing that more men are getting fired, because it just indicates that women are staying in worse jobs - it's not better for women to be paid less in the long run even if they're employed in the short run. What is anti-male about saying that men and women should be fired at the same rates, if people are going to be fired?


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