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