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Women (and Men) – The Dignity of Work

April 19, 2012

If there is a war on women, it is the longest running war in U.S.history.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the manufactured controversy waged in the U.S. media last week between CNN commentator, Hillary Rosen and Ann Romney, wife of GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Responding to a comment made by Mr. Romney last January, when he stated, “Poor women who stay home to raise their children should be given federal assistance for child care so they can enter the job market and have the dignity of work,” Rosen quipped that Ann Romney “had not worked a day in her life.”   Ann Romney quickly reacted with an inaugural tweet, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”

Of this we have no doubt.

Anyone who has raised children, whether they work exclusively in the home or struggle with the juggling act of holding down a job and managing a household, understands that childcare is real work!

This debate is so HOT and fast-moving that Congressional Democrats have this week introduced the Women’s Option to Work Act (WORK) which would apply the stay at home option to mothers on welfare as well. Under current welfare law (TANF -Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, “reformed” in 1996) raising children does not count as work (which all able-bodied recipients are required to do).

The proposed WORK act would allow mothers with children ages 3 and under to stay at home with their children and continue to collect benefits.  Current TANF regulations allow women with children to count doing childcare for other women as “work,” but not the care of their own children.

But this article isn’t about the Hillary vs. Ann debate or questioning whether child care is real labor – it is about the work world that the majority of women in this country inhabit.  The media frenzied contest between Hillary and Ann gives the country another opportunity to have a substantive conversation about the state of working women – wherever they work.

In 2012 the state of work for women is still a sorry state of affairs. While women overall made major strides from the 1970’s when only 2% were executives to today when 52% of middle management positions are female, other indicators show progress has slowed and even stalled.  For some groups of women, the progress has been inexcusably slow. Of the total number of women in middle management only 5.2% are African-American, 3.8% are Latina and only 2.8% are Asian-American.

Women’s advancement to higher ranks within all professions continues to move at a glacial pace. Despite the press excitement over high-profile CEO appointments like non-golfer, Virgina Rometty at IBM, the senior leadership gender gap is still huge.  As of 2011, there were 98 female CEOs of 3,049 publicly traded companies. That represents just 3.2% of the total company CEOs and is just slightly above the 3.1% from 2010 and 2.9% in 2009.

According to Cynthia Good, CEO of the women’s business newsletter, Little Pink Book, “The advancement of key women is stalled.” Board membership for women isn’t gaining in strength either. The research group Catalyst reports that in ’09 women held only 15.2% of all Fortune 500 board seats and 12% had no women on their boards. Debbie Soon, senior VP at Catalyst, points out, “We really have flat-lined. For the past five years, there’s been hardly any progress.”

Show Me the Money

Whether ascending the ranks of senior management and board representation or increasing their numbers in still mostly male bastions like the sciences and engineering, women must contend with the shocking reality that they are still only paid, on average, 77 cents for every dollar made by a man for comparable work.

At the state level, things are even worse – women in Louisiana for example only make $0.67 on the dollar. Women of color are worse off, with African-American women making only $0.62 on the dollar and Latinas only $0.54.

These gaps can add up to as much as $24,000 in lost wages every single year. On average, women will lose $431,000 over a 40 year working career

In 2009, the landmark Lily Ledbetter Act was signed into law. The law provides women with more legal channels though which to pursue equal pay for equal work. Rather than enjoying popular bipartisan support, the law continues to draw criticism from opponents. Just recently former Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra (who voted against the measure) running for Senate in Michigan called the Act “a nuisance” that shouldn’t be in a law.

In statehouses across the country legislators are drafting measures to roll back many workers’ rights laws. Just this month Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker repealed the states’ equal pay law. Given the outcome of the November 2012 elections, the federal law could even be subject to repeal.

Right now, The Pay Check Fairness Act is pending in Congress.  The Act proposes to close loopholes in current labor laws and ban employer retaliation against workers who seek to expose wage discrimination.  With a bitterly divided Congress and an election year, it is highly unlikely that the measure will pass.

The gains in salary that woman acquired over the eighties and nineties have not only leveled off but have, in fact, dropped off to the point where men’s salaries are pulling far ahead once again. One trend that bears close scrutiny is that women, faced with unequal pay and inflexible and often challenging work conditions, are opting out of the workforce.

Between 1993 and 2006, the amount of college educated women in the workforce declined .1% a year. By 2008, that amounted to 1.64 million women.  The reasons for this trend are complex, but one critical factor is the near total absence of convenient and safe child care options.  While we hear a great deal about work-life balance, that illusive idea is quickly becoming the stuff of myths.

The United States remains the only major developed country without any form of subsidized child care. Childcare, even for double income families is expensive and women are bearing the brunt of that dilemma.

According to the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies the average cost of full-time childcare in 2009 ranged from $4450 in Mississippi to $18,750 in Massachusetts for one child. On average in 40 states it costs more to have a one year old in childcare than a year’s tuition in a 4-year public college and the average annual amount that families spent on food.

Where are these moms – who clearly need to support their families – going?

Statistics show that a growing number are becoming “entrepreneurs,” starting their own micro businesses (illegal and legal) often stringing together part-time work that allows them greater flexibility if not income security with no health benefits.

In some cases, removing the time and cost of travel to and from jobs and daycare expenses,  working from home has allowed these women at least the freedom to schedule their own time.  Predictions are that with the advent of a new generation of Millennial babies, these trends will increase, placing a continual drain on the traditional workforce.

The story within the story is that all women working today face a complexity of forces that include wage gaps, slow and low growth job progress, lack of affordable child care support and in the boomer demographic, increased responsibilities for parental care.

Any analysis of the prospects for women’s economic futures must weigh together these variables.  Add to the equation the mounting statistics of increases in non-married women and divorces. This means that many more women are no longer pooling their resources with a spouse’s income and are forced to rely more heavily on their own earnings, while continuing to earn considerably less.  

If Women Aren’t at the Top, Where Are the Jobs?

Men, who lost more than twice as many jobs as women during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, have landed 88 percent of the non-farm jobs created since the recession ended in June 2009. “The recovery is a mancovery,” said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Washington-based Center for American Progress. “I don’t see improvement for women in the past year, whereas for men this is the best year in years.”

The jobless rate for males 16 years old or older has dropped 2.3 percentage points since the recession ended, falling to 8.3 percent in February from 10.6 percent in June 2009. It has barely budged for women over the same period, moving to 8.2 percent from 8.3 percent, according to figures from the Labor Department.

Close analysis of the pockets of job loss for women points to teaching. Teaching represents about 9% of the jobs women hold in the U.S.economy. Across public and private institutions at all levels of education, women make up 69.4% of teachers as compared with 65.1% on average with other developed countries.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that since Obama became President a larger share 22.7% of jobs lost by women have been as teachers.  The waves of teacher layoffs have been implemented by state legislators, primarily Republican, in budget slashing efforts where education is a primary target.

In 2011, women made up about 60% of all state and local jobs holders.  Because women are so disproportionately represented in those sectors they have also taken the brunt of the job losses in state and local governments – roughly 70% of the drop has impacted women.

Today there are about 540,000 fewer women in state and local government jobs than in 2007, compared with 225,000 fewer men. Calls to cut government translate to a greater loss for women’s economic security also losing precious health benefits that often affect families in the process.

The hard fact is that women’s economic health and progress are burdened by decades of sexual discrimination, insufficient and ineffective legislative protections and family responsibilities. Whichever way you look on the economic spectrum, women’s gains have been slow. Women at the bottom of the economic ladder, especially single mothers and those without spouses, are struggling even harder in the “post” recession climate.

Caught in low-wage, slow-growth jobs, often in the service sector or working as domestics without any mobility in sight, many women face harsh challenges. It’s particularly important for all women (and the men who support them) to understand that we are all in the same boat.

Efforts in 10 states to raise the minimum wage are already being met with objections alleging that mandates will harm the fragile job recovery. That’s expected as business interests have historically opposed most, if not all, mandated gains for workers.  Proponents of raising minimum wages at state and federal levels (where it has been $7.25 since ’09), point out that adjusted for inflation, the value of the minimum wage is lower than it was in 1968.

The post-recession economy has forced millions of workers, mostly women, to take minimum wage jobs, thrusting them into the poverty wage levels that stand at $10,890 for a single person to $22,350 for a family of four. Today, someone earning minimum wage would have to work 749 hours to afford one year of health insurance premiums and 923 to afford a year’s tuition at a public 4 year college.

Honest analysis, serious public conversation and swift action will be needed to turn these alarming impediments to economic stability and future growth opportunities for women (and men in low wage jobs).  Using wages and women as political footballs and trumping up “phony mommy wars,” (as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd so aptly described the recent flap) digs our dire economic circumstances deeper into the ground.

Women deserve economic and professional parity.  All workers deserve the dignity of work and work with dignity.

As always, I appreciate your readership, subscriptions, comments, likes, shares and tweets.   Join the conversation and let readers know what you think about the issue of women’s work and equal pay.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June Severino Feldman permalink
    April 20, 2012 2:23 pm

    Great article, Louise!

    • April 20, 2012 4:11 pm

      Hi June!

      Great to see you here. Very pleased that you appreciated the article. I could not resist the opportunity to add another layer to the complex story of women’s economic power and freedom.

      Thanks for the comment,

  2. Pat permalink
    September 3, 2012 7:49 am

    Throughout the exposition of global gender relations, it becomes clear that women have always done the majority of work, inside or outside since few documentaries exhibit males actually working. Rick Steve’s travel journals also are testimony of that fact. The prevailing attitudes that “males supervise while women work” seems to be a universal legacy for women that the U.S. is attempting to address through equal pay efforts, but the longer term consequences of that “back door” assault on attitudes leaves much to be desired in the attempt to achieve gender equity – throughout the world.


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