Have Women Really Taken Over The Workforce?

Heralding the triumph of women in the workforce last week, the Economist reported that women not only make up the majority of professional workers in many countries, but also that they earn nearly 60 percent of university degrees in America and Europe. Reinforcing the case for the Great Recession being a Great "Mancession," the article cites an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent for women but 11.2 percent for men.

The cover, brandishing Rosie the Riveter and the headline: "We Did It!," would suggest some kind of victorious finality. But the article admits several big concessions to the majority-female-workforce victory, most notably the pay gap. The average full-time female worker in Britain or the U.S. earns 80 percent as much as her male equivalent, though this gap shrinks if the woman is not a mother. Gender parity in the upper ranks looks equally bleak, with a tiny percentage of women in the boardrooms and C-Suites of Fortune 500 companies.

Over at Forbes, Mark Rice links the pay gap to research showing a decline in the happiness of American women. U.S. maternity leave policies--the second-least generous policies of the 30 OECD nations--are no help, he argues, especially in comparison to Sweden's extensive allowances for new parents. This almost-cliché invocation of Sweden as an ideal state brings us back to what I found to be the most interesting tidbit in the Economist piece: 

"Sweden is not quite the paragon that its fans imagine, despite its family-friendly employment policies. Only 1.5% of senior managers are women, compared with 11% in America. Three-quarters of Swedish women work in the public sector; three-quarters of men work in the private sector."

When rumors of the "mancession" started circulating in September, Atlantic Business' Derek Thompson theorized that more men than women were losing their jobs because women happened to work primarily in sectors that have seen a lot of growth over the past decade--including during the recession--like health care, education, and government. Largely male sectors like manufacturing and construction, on the other hand, have been decimated by the financial collapse.

Why would the public sector attract more women? The Economist says "traditionally 'female' jobs such as teaching mix well with motherhood because wages do not rise much with experience and hours are relatively light." This might explain why women gravitate toward the public sector, but it doesn't justify the trend. As Latoya Peterson at Jezebel points out, "Wages not rising generally places severe financial stress on a household--reduced hours are desired by many parents, but the trade off (less cash) is not necessarily welcome." On that note, mancession-denouncers should remember that not all jobs are equal. Economix's Nancy Folbre suggests that measures of employment equality should take into account the fact that women are twice as likely as men to work part-time.

As more women earn undergraduate and graduate degrees and begin to infiltrate traditionally male spheres like science and management, one would expect their titles and wages to catch up. But as the allure of public-sector and part-time work reveals, women make professional choices based on more than just their qualifications.

So yes, it could get worse than working for the legendarily munificent Swedish government. But I find it hard to believe that three-quarters of Swedish women would rather stick to the middling public wage track than join their husbands on the private payroll. Once women no longer have to choose between professional and reproductive output, I'll be more inclined to believe that "we did it."

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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