Women in the Work Force

Gender disparity in the workplace might have less to do with discrimination than with women making the choice to stay at home

Drastic shifts in sex roles seem to be sweeping through America. From 1890 to 1985 the participation in the work force of women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four soared from 15 to 71 percent, with the pace of change tripling after 1950. At the end of the Second World War only 10 percent of married women with children under the age of six held jobs or were seeking them. Since then mothers of preschool children have thronged the job market: by 1985 the census had classified more than half of these young mothers as participants in the work force.

Women seem to be crowding into sectors of the work force traditionally occu­pied by men. From 1972 to 1985 women's share of professional jobs increased from 44 to 49 percent and their share of "management" jobs nearly doubled growing from 20 to 36 percent. The sociologist Andrew Hacker reported in The New York Times Magazine in 1984 that from 1960 to 1983 the percentage of lawyers who are women had risen from 2 to 15 and the percentage of jobs in banking and financial management held by women had risen from 9 to 39.

According to Hacker, a similar shift had occurred in blue-collar work. He cited as examples the fact that from 1970 to 1984 the number of female butchers in packinghouses had risen by more than a third and that by 1984 nearly 80 percent of new bartending jobs were going to women. Moreover, Hacker pointed out, the number of male flight attendants rose by 10,000 during the 1970s. In a poll conducted in 1983 by The New York Times 21 percent of married men declared that they would prefer to stay home and care for the children if they could.

The future apparently promises yet more blurring of traditional sex roles in the work force. Half of all 1985 College graduates were women, and women are earning a steadily rising share of all advanced degrees, including close to one third of all degrees in law, business, accounting, and computer and information sciences.

Every year seems to bring new evidence of radical change in the masculine and feminine roles around which most Americans have oriented their lives and expectations. Yet this "revolution"—for all its numerical weight and anecdotal pervasiveness—is largely a statistical illusion.

Many of the statistics that have been cited in the stories of sexual revolution are reflections instead of the Industrial Revolution. The entrance of women into the work force has accompanied, at a slower pace, their departure from farms. As recently as eighty years ago 36 percent of American families were engaged in agriculture; today fewer than three percent are. This shift is truly a revolution, and it has transformed the official labor statistics for women. Although these statistics show women entering the work force in record numbers, the fact is that women have always worked. Their labor on farms, however—in an array of arduous jobs beyond the hearth and cribside—;was never monitored by statisticians.

Some 80 percent of single (that is, never married) women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four now work for pay, and this percentage has not changed significantly since 1950. (The rest presumably include welfare recipients and women of independent means.) Although work-force participation by married women in this age group has increased dramatically—from 26 percent in 1950 to some 67 percent in the mid-1980s—the vast majority of married women, like their grandmothers on the farm, seek part-time or seasonal work convenient to their homes.

As of 1984—the most recent year for which detailed figures are available—only 37 percent of all women between the ages of twenty and sixty-four and 41 percent of all women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four held fulltime year-round jobs (including teaching jobs). Also as of 1984 only 29 percent of married women held full-time year-round jobs. That same year married women contributed an average of only 18.6 percent of the total incomes of their families. From 1960 to 1980 the incomes of working wives actually fell in relation to the incomes of working husbands: from 40 percent to 38 percent.

Statistics such as these are generally interpreted as evidence of tenacious discrimination against women. Such discrimination unquestionably exists, but one can argue that it is only a small part of what the statistics reflect.

It is possible that the data also reflect choices that women themselves are making. A study conducted in the mid1970s by the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, lends support to the hypothesis that the job priorities of married women are not the same as those of married men. The study uncovered a sharp difference between wives and husbands in the extent to which they exploit what the researchers termed their "earnings capacity," or potential, as defined by a complex formula that includes such variables as age, location, education, experience, training, and physical health. For women the researchers considered one other variable: discrimination. Because the researchers allowed for discrimination in their calculation of the extent to which women exploit their earnings capacity, discrimination alone cannot explain the differences they found.

The study showed that single men and single women are about equally successful in the extent to which they exploit their earnings capacity (68 percent for single men, 64 percent for single women). However, whereas married men of working age exploit 87 percent of their earnings capacity, married women exploit only 33 percent. Thus, according to the study, married men are more than twice as successful in realizing their financial potential as married women are.

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