A Working Woman's World: Out-Learning and Under-Earning Men

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A new poll finds women optimistic about their opportunities and comfortable with their roles. Say good-bye to the "mommy wars." 

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Construction isn't an industry usually considered hospitable to women, but Kimberly Reading of Deltona, Fla., found it a firm foundation for opportunity.

Working at a family-owned home-building firm, she started off "in the front office ... answering telephones and purchasing pencils," she recalls. But the father and sons who ran the company gave her an opportunity to prove she could handle more responsibility. "Once they could see I could do it, they embraced it," Reading says. Eventually she became a project manager, directing multimillion-dollar housing subdivisions and training other project managers. At the industry's peak, she collected a six-figure salary. And apart from a few flirtatious comments from male coworkers early in her career, she says she never felt held back because she was a woman. "It's the new culture we're in," she says. "If you want it, you can go for it. You can't get held back by your gender."

Comparing her own experience with her mother's, Reading, 34, believes she enjoys vastly greater opportunity and choice. In that belief she's among a commanding majority of women. In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, two-thirds of women said they have greater opportunities to get ahead in society than their mothers did; only one in 14 said they have fewer. "My opportunities were a lot more," Reading says. "My mother was a home-wife her whole life. She was very young when she had children." Like Reading, a striking three-fourths of women say they believe they can now advance as far as their talents will take them, regardless of their gender, and nearly as many say they have not personally experienced discrimination in the workplace.

Still, despite the widespread sense that more workplace doors are opening for women, the survey found that half of women still believed that more opportunities were available for men and that most women expected the lingering pay gap between the sexes to endure. It also found that men and especially women were struggling to balance their responsibilities at work and home in an economy when many families need the income from two earners to stay afloat. Perhaps most strikingly, women felt the rules and expectations were often changing more rapidly around the conference table than the kitchen table, according to the survey: The vast majority of women with children continue to report that they spend more time than their spouses raising the children.

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And yet, for many mothers, the survey makes clear that this decision is at least as much a choice as a necessity. Indeed, the poll suggested that many women now look at time in the workplace and time with children not so much as irrevocable decisions than as fluid options that they will dial up or down at different points in their lives. After an era in which sociologists talked about the "mommy wars" between women who worked outside the home and those who remained there to rear children, this new survey found that many women today are comfortable shifting between the two roles, at a pace and proportion that they control.

Reading exemplifies that dynamic. Notwithstanding her rapid ascent at the home-building company, she left in 2009 around the time she gave birth to her second son. "With my first son, we paid for child care.... It went well; he was taken care of, and he learned a lot," she says. "But when I had my second son, I wanted to do the nurturing myself. I didn't want to miss out on all the things I missed with my first son." Even that's not the end of the story, though. Now Reading is working toward a history degree that she hopes will allow her to transition into a career in historic preservation when her children are older. Looking at her friends, she knows that integrating career and home life can be "very stressful." But she's confident that it will be her choices, rather than any limits imposed by others, that will determine how she strikes that balance.

ECONOMIC EXPERIENCES

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll is the 12th in a series exploring the ways that Americans are navigating the changing economy. The poll, conducted by Ed Reilly, Brent McGoldrick, and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Strategic Communications, a communications-strategy consulting firm, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline telephone and cell phone from March 3 to 6. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

This survey focused on the economic experiences of women and the ways that men and women balance the demands of home and work. Since the most recent Heartland Monitor was taken in December, the poll finds a noticeable uptick in optimism about the country's direction and the economy's trajectory; that breeze has lifted President Obama's approval rating above 50 percent for only the second time in the survey since September 2009. The other occasion came immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden. (See "Stronger, but Not Secure.")

The poll comes at a complex moment of opportunity and continuing challenge for women in the workforce. Women now receive roughly three-fifths of both bachelor's and master's degrees from American colleges and universities. And for 47 of the past 50 months, the unemployment rate has been lower for women than for men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (In the Heartland Monitor survey, men were more likely than women to say they had lost a job or had seen their hours and pay cut in the past five years.)

But women, at every step up the credential ladder, still earn less than men with the same level of education. (Indeed, in the survey, a majority of working women said they earned less than their spouse, and only one-fifth said they had more opportunity to advance in their job than their spouse did.) And while the Labor Department mostly forecasts the greatest job growth in fields dominated by women, many of those jobs, including health care and education, don't pay very well. This reality means that the pay gap between men and women probably won't disappear any time soon.

In fact, the survey found that 65 percent of women, and a narrower 52 percent of men, expect the wage gap between the sexes to persist. Yet only about one-fourth of each gender attributed the pay gap primarily to discrimination or unfair treatment in the workplace. The largest group in each gender--almost half of women and about two-fifths of men--said that the pay gap existed because "women have different family and home life priorities and responsibilities than men." The remaining one-fourth of men and approximately one-sixth of women attributed the difference to women making "different choices than men in the workplace," such as not pursuing promotions as aggressively.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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