We’ve read here and elsewhere that women are tied with men when it comes to workforce numbers. We’ve read here and elsewhere, thanks to Maria Shriver’s report, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, that some folks think we’ve put an end to the battle of the sexes.
We even may have read somewhere that the women’s movement has gone quietly out of business, a victim of its own success — or maybe failure, depending on your point of view.
What we may not have read often enough, however, is that numbers alone do not equal, well, equality. Katha Pollit, a regular columnist for The Nation, parses it all out for us this week, suggesting that, while it’s not quite a man’s world anymore, it’s hardly a woman’s nation, either. She first cites Shriver’s report:
… for the first time in our history, women are now 50 percent of the paid workforce. And they aren’t working just to buy Christmas presents: four in ten mothers are primary breadwinners (that includes single mothers); among women generally, 80 percent contribute a major chunk of the family income.
Good, yes? Wait for the “but”:
[Shriver’s] own polls show women sense much more discrimination, at work and in the home, than men believe exists. But they also show that majorities accept working mothers, and even women earning more than their husbands. And yet, the report notes, although “workplaces are no longer the domain of men,” our society is still organized as if they were, with everything from doctors’ office hours to school schedules to Social Security organized around the outmoded stay-home mom/breadwinner dad model…
All of which points back to a recurring Undecided theme: Career decisions for women have that extra layer of built-in angst. Sure, we have all these doors open to us. But once we get inside the building, the illusions of choice, of equality — of “having it all” — start to crumble.
And there’s another issue here, too. Money. While women might be half the workforce, they’re hardly taking home half the pay. Back to Pollitt, who writes that gender segregation in the workforce still haunts us: sisters are more likely to be working at lower-paid jobs than their brothers. And this parity we’ve been whooping about? It may indeed have to do with the recession, but not the way you think. Traditionally male jobs — construction, for example — have been hit hard, while “women’s work” has not:
The top ten jobs for women are, in order, secretary, nurse, elementary- and middle-school teacher, cashier, retail salesperson, health aide, retail supervisor, waitress, bookkeeper and receptionist. Men have lost more jobs than women in the recession because the ax has fallen more sharply in heavily male fields like construction and manufacturing than in female ones like healthcare and clerical work. As economist Barbara Bergmann wrote in an unpublished letter to the New York Times, “An important reason for the failure to reduce the gap between women’s and men’s average wages is that little progress has been made in reducing gender segregation in jobs that do not require a college degree.” Interestingly, according to the Wall Street Journal, on the professional end of the workforce, where men and women are more likely to have the same or similar jobs, as many women as men have been laid off.
Pollitt also cites the facts that men are paid more and promoted more and that, once a woman becomes a mother — forget maternity leave — she is less likely to be hired than a woman without kids. And if she takes time off to stay home with them? Ka-ching. For every two years that a woman jumps out of the workforce, she gets docked some 10 percent of her income — for life.
It is indeed remarkable that women are half the workforce, but there’d be more to cheer about if they also earned an equal share of the pay. It may be easier to find a job as a home health aide than a welder, but male jobs tend to pay a lot more than female ones (and, one might add, do not involve a lot of deferential smiling).
The deferential smiling. And doesn’t that just say it all.