Women in the Workforce

0110BB1 The Economist has a great article on the status of women in the workforce in America and in other nations.

The article points out some of the great advances.

Women now make up almost half of American workers (49.9% in October).
They run some of the world’s best companies, such as PepsiCo, Archer
Daniels Midland and W.L. Gore. They earn almost 60% of university
degrees in America and Europe.

However, the article rightly points out that society has not made the necessary adjustments to cope with these changes. Women are forgoing motherhood entirely or they drop out of the workforce after children arrive.

I'm going to come back to this article, because it includes some references to new studies. I am also rereading the Feminine Mystique, so I've got women and work on the brain.


24 thoughts on “Women in the Workforce

  1. Why isn’t not having children a sort of “societal adjustment” to the changes? I’m sure that some of the women who don’t have kids would have liked to, but surely some percentage find that they enjoy work more than children and so take that path instead. We in the US are nowhere near to having a labor shortage, and much of Europe would not be either if they had less hostility to foreigners, so fewer people having kids is not itself an obvious problem. At the least, I don’t think it should be assumed that not having kids is a problem as opposed to an answer to a problem.
    (Even dropping out of the labor force isn’t necessarily a problem (though of course it could be)- working is often unpleasant, even in good jobs, and for people who like kids it may be perfectly rational to leave the labor market if they can afford it. If anything, that more women than men do this on average might well show that men have bad priorities, at least in some cases.)

  2. Not having children is a perfectly fine option if that what women really want. However, women may be forgoing having children for other reasons, ie they can’t afford to have them or they know that can’t keep working, while having kids or they are afraid that they won’t be able to find proper childcare. Women may really want to kids and have a strong biological need to have kids, but just can’t do it. If that’s the case, then there is some terribly wrong with the current state of affairs.
    Dropping out of workforce may not be a tragedy also, except if women really want to be work also. The Economist refers to a study that looked at women who dropped out of the workforce after they had kids and held a graduate degree from business school. Nearly all of those who dropped out wanted to be back working.
    Many women would like both. They want children. They want their children to receive adequate attention and care. They also want to work in jobs that utilize their skills and that provide them with economic stability. The current system forces women and parents to make painful and unfair choices.

  3. I guess it depends heavily on what sort of trade-offs we are considering. Many times in these discussions I get the strong impression (and sometimes am explicitly told) that people think that one ought to be able to, say, be a partner at a bit NY law firm, and make the sort of money that such a partner makes, and have a rich, meaningful relationship with one’s children. I find that preposterous.(*) I find that preposterous because anyone who is smart and dedicated enough to become a partner at a big NY law firm could have also done many other jobs, including many other lawyering jobs, that would have allowed him or her to have a meaningful relationship with his or her family, but has instead decided that they would rather have lots of money. These other jobs do not pay what most of us here would call high salaries, though they do pay more than, say, what my parents made when I was growing up, even accounting for inflation. But no one has a right to a really high salary, so the fact that you can’t have a really high salary and do all the other things that are important to one is, at most, a very minor tragedy. So, at least in these sorts of cases, I don’t feel bad for the people making the trade-offs at all. There are, for such people, lots of other options that are very good. Now, for many others these options are not as clearly available. For them, it’s a harder case, but it’s not clear that more childcare is the answer. The better answer is for women in such situations to demand more from the men involved, that they share the duties. If the men won’t do their part, the women shouldn’t marry them or have kids with them.
    (This is one area where decoupling health care from jobs would be a real help, in that it would let couples who want to live on two part-time jobs do so without the worry of not having the health insurance that only comes with a full-time job. In such cases, people would be choosing to take less money for more time- a perfectly reasonable pay-off and one that’s not open to many now because of insurance issues. This is somewhat distinct from other issues, though.)
    Unless “biological need” just means “really strong desire”, I think the idea that women have a biological need to have children is almost certainly false. If it’s just a really strong desire, I’m not sure why I should care about it much more than people’s really strong desire to be a ballerina or something.
    (*)I’m open to the idea that taxes on top salaries should be high enough that it would discourage many more people from having the rather destructive lives that many law firm partners and other have.

  4. I struggle with my view on what the “right answer” is to the question of the ideal government policy for working women (parents).
    Full salary for one parent to stay home with a child for up to three years? (But that just encourages women to stay out of the workforce, which isn’t in the best interest of the woman . . .)
    Free government-supplied quality daycare for up to 24 hours a day so that single moms can make the overnight business trips necessary to become top executives at Fortune 500 companies? (But that doesn’t seem like it’s in the best interest of the kids . . .)
    A choice of either/ or? (You decide whose best interest you want to sacrifice . . .) And do we fund it by taxing the young and old to benefit the middle? Taxing the childless to benefit the parents?
    My inability to decide what the “Right” answer is makes me think that (against my usual liberal inclinations) the right answer here isn’t so much governmental policy as cultural change.
    Not that there aren’t some governmental interventions (like FMLA) that are very valuable, but much more could be done switching to an ideal of both parents work 75% (30 hours a week), minimally-overlapping, with a few hours of daycare thrown into the gaps. With a societal norm of less work, prices would adjust so that people who worked less could afford regular middle class housing. People working 40 hours or more would be outliers who were voluntarily choosing work over home obligations, and wouldn’t expect society to help them with their kids.

  5. @Matt, I at least don’t believe every woman has a right to as many kids as she desires, regardless of her circumstances. For centuries people have been forced to limit their number of kids due to resources (thru low calorie intake inhibiting pregnancy, giving children up for adoption or early apprenticeship, not marrying to begin with).
    But that doesn’t change the fact that, once the kid arrives, it’s disproportionately the mom who pays for it both in terms of effort and in terms of assumed risk. Even though the dad benefits by having his genes propagated, and all of society benefits from the creation of another worker/citizen, those folks are not taking on tradeoffs on anywhere near the mom’s scale.

  6. I don’t know a single woman who explicitly wanted kids but didn’t have them because work was more important, or because she didn’t think she could afford it. Do you?
    Maybe some women who didn’t have MORE kids because of finances, but that’s probably not a problem with current replacement rates, is it?

  7. “I don’t know a single woman who explicitly wanted kids but didn’t have them because work was more important, or because she didn’t think she could afford it. Do you?”
    yes. A lot of them. I know women who put off kids for too long, because they were working on their careers. They just couldn’t afford to have them, because they were stuck in grad school for too long or they couldn’t take the time to have kids, while getting tenure. After a while, it’s too late.
    Ragtime – I think that if we’re going to subside childcare, then we have to subsidize SAHM moms at least in the early years. It may entirely be in the best interest of women to stay at home. Can’t make assumptions.
    Also, Steve and I did a version of your 70% job/little childcare/equal parenting solution for a while. Only ours was one 110% job, one 70% job, no childcare option. I’m still recovering. We had no weekends together and a lot of nights with very little sleep. I refuse to ever do that again.
    Matt – Nobody is arguing that every woman should be able to make six figures as a partner at a law firm and still be back home in time for gymboree. It just would be nice, if there were more work opportunities for people who want a middle road. I’ve been looking around for work lately. My options are so sucky that I can’t even talk about it.
    I absolutely believe that people have a biological need to have children. It’s not like an itch to take up the bongos. It’s more like a need to eat and sleep.

  8. I’ve been looking around for work lately. My options are so sucky that I can’t even talk about it.
    I think this applies to pretty much everyone right now, unfortunately.
    As for the biological need, I’m just not sure what that could mean here. If you don’t eat or sleep you don’t feel sort of empty, you die. Obviously that’s not so with having kids. It’s a strong desire that many people feel incomplete if they don’t achieve. From all I can tell, that applies to Tiger Woods having sex with lots of women, too. (He was willing to risk hundreds of millions of dollars on it, after all.) We should, of course, try to set up society so that people can meet common strong desires. But already most people who want kids can have them. Additionally, I’m not sure how you’d even start to determine if this is a “biological” or social trait here, since it’s so common. Given that sort of thing, I don’t see that talk of biology is anything more than a rhetorical move in place of an argument.

  9. “I don’t know a single woman who explicitly wanted kids but didn’t have them because work was more important, or because she didn’t think she could afford it. Do you?”
    Yes, I do, too, at least 4 I can list off the top of my head. I also know several who have one child when they would have preferred 2. For most of them, work was more important at a particular point in time (say, in their 20’s and 30’s). Most of these women are older than me (say 50’s & 60’s). I think we’re moving away from this failure because women are more aware of the limits in their fertile years, especially the kind of woman I’m talking about.

  10. It’s a strong desire that many people feel incomplete if they don’t achieve. From all I can tell, that applies to Tiger Woods having sex with lots of women, too.
    There’s a pretty big difference between a strong desire where the only possible benefits are highly individual and a strong desire that is sort of essential for the continuation of the species. And, speaking in evolutionary terms, Wood’s desire is hardly unrelated to the desire for children.

  11. Oh, and practically, I think that making the benefits costs of workers pro-rated to their hours worked is one of the most pro-woman policies we could enact. For the most part, that means separating health care and retirement (to the extent they’re subsidized) from employment.
    Mind you, I think doing that would still mean that “ideal workers” were favored, because I think infinite availability is always going to be a bonus in the workplace but at least we don’t straight up skew the economics of part-time work.

  12. For most of them, work was more important at a particular point in time (say, in their 20’s and 30’s).
    OK, are you talking about women who put off childbearing and then later couldn’t conceive? Or perhaps they didn’t meet a partner in time? Or are you talking about women who said “I really want children, but I can’t be a big lawyer and also raise them, so too bad, can’t do it”?
    I have known a number of the former, but none of the latter. And to me that’s again very different from “I have one and recognize how much it’s costing: I can’t give two the advantages I want for them.”

  13. We’ve seen it time and again that, for men, parenting is often seen as a sign of reliability and a need factor in employment. For women, it’s the opposite.
    I’m constantly aware of how much my husband has sacrificed in order for our family to make a go based on my career. I’m also aware how much more I’d be able to do, how much more marketable I would be, had I foregone parenting.
    No matter how much you plan: life happens and employees have to deal with those family needs, whether it’s elder care, partner care or child care.
    Employers that expect employees, pre-trained in all their specialties, to walk right in when needed and disappear when demand drops, are asking for the best of both worlds: the old system where long-term or life-time employment was offered at a “family wage” and the new one where contract staff help to trim the bottom line. Neither one was worker-friendly and women’s greater engagement in family life just highlights their failings all the more.

  14. I’m right there with bj and Matt in saying that separating health care and other benefits from full-time work would really, really help with this ideal worker problem.
    Also, on the topic of whether or not women are curtailing family size based on income, the most recent abortion statistics are quite telling. Abortion is down among teenagers, who used to be considered the “classic” seekers of abortion. These days 60% of women getting abortions already have children, and know they can’t afford more.

  15. “Or are you talking about women who said “I really want children, but I can’t be a big lawyer and also raise them, so too bad, can’t do it”? ”
    Yes, that’s what I’m talking about for 5 of the women. In their 20’s & 30’s they wanted children; they discussed it with their partners (all three had partners). They realized at that point that having children would produce a big career hit, and weren’t willing to take it. The five women are all members of the National Academies, so they’ve succeeded in their career goals. Three of the women I’ve had personal conversations with, so I’m not making assumptions about their opinions — they all state that they considered and rejected children because of the work demands, and that they regret it. Two have spoken publicly and in print about their experiences, in an effort to make more options available for younger women — and to give younger women the courage to stand up for their desire to reproduce, even though it might be difficult. (oh, and 4/5 women ex-partners have now reproduce with younger women, to make the story a bit more sordid).
    All are older than us, though. Though workplaces aren’t mom-friendly now, they were certainly less friendly and more rigid in the past.

  16. Urgh, “4/5 of the women’s ex-partners have had children with younger women.” So, the partners did still get to have children (even though the decision in the early years was “joint”).

  17. The job I start on Monday is an adjunct job. It pays $3000, no benefits. It lasts five weeks. I have been prepping about an hour or so every day this week, plus a little bit before break. I’d guess that I’ve already put in close to 10 hours before the job has even started. I will teach four days a week, two hours/day for a total of 8 hours per week. I am going to try to limit further prep/grading to no more than 1 hour per day, so another 4 hours, for 12 hours/week. Assuming I can do that, it’s a reasonable hourly wage, around $40/hr.
    But it’s temporary. As all adjunct jobs are. What I’d like to see is this kind of part-time work made permanent. If I taught this class over and over again, then my prep time would likely decrease, making the hourly wage increase. It might also be nice to throw in a slightly higher salary and some pro-rated benefits. As it is, picking up part-time teaching, I have to reinvent the wheel every time. And so does the school, so it’s a dilemma on both sides. There are costs involved in interviewing and hiring, after all.
    There are 96 jobs in my RSS feed right now, not a single part-time one. These jobs are technical, teaching, cultural jobs–a wide range of possibilities. The part-time jobs I do see are either shady work-at-home deals, adjunct jobs, or cashier/retail positions. There just need to be more part-time opportunities. I took the adjunct job because it looked intellectually stimulating, something that I would benefit from and that, I hope the school will benefit from. But most employers still think that part-time employees are not committed, are a flight risk, etc. But if the job is good and not grunt work, then people will stick with them. And quite frankly, why shouldn’t employees behave the way employers do. I know, I know, it’s not an employee’s market right now.
    I, too, know plenty of women who deliberately put off childbearing for their careers, most of them in tenure-track positions. When they got tenure and started trying to have children, things didn’t work out. A couple of them adopted. But most of them remained childless, and some of them were partnerless. I also recognize that my having children derailed my career, but perhaps not as much as my choice of a fellow academic as a partner. When you both face difficult job markets, it just makes logical sense to privilege one career over the other. My husband’s market (computer science) was better than mine; his potential salary better than mine. It was a practical financial decision.
    I have more to say, but I’ll leave it at that. I think there are lots of possibilities for change that might help not just women, but everyone.

  18. Laura/Geeky Mom – My problem is that my grading/prep work takes more than 4 hours per week. I had to budget one hour a week for answering student e-mail and other requests. I prep for around 1-2 hours for each lecture. A lot more if I switch the readings, which I do often. My classes usually have two written exams and one or two written assignments. I always had full classes of thirty, so that meant 20 hours of grading for each assignment. I’m constantly looking for current event examples to illuminate the lectures or for new graphs/videos/diagrams that I can rip off to use on my PP slides. In the past, I also maintained a class website with updated info about the reading assignments. I’m an idiot.

  19. So how many hours/week is it really, to teach the classes laura/11D taught? If $40/hour is a reasonable wage, what’s a reasonable teaching load for a full-time faculty member (who is supposed to do other work, i.e. service & research)? Do full-time faculty members actually make this wage?
    My guess is that most full-time faculty would say they make substantially less than $40/hour (though they may not be including benefits when making that calc).

  20. I’d want something more than $40/hour if I worked without benefits. Especially if, as has always been the case for my side jobs, I have to pay the whole SS tax out of my check.

  21. It’s interesting, bj. I really haven’t encountered that in my generation (I’m 43). Acknowledgement that it’s easier not to have kids in certain careers, yes, but everyone I know has had kids anyway, if they decided they wanted them in the first place.
    The younger wife deal just makes me want to bang my head against something. Of course that can happen even if you do have the kids.

  22. We’re the same age Marya, and, I largely agree that the women my age have indeed just gone ahead and had children. A few haven’t, but the more complicated descriptions (no partner, long-distance relationships, etc. and then age) all compounded together. The 5 I talked about are all 10+ years older. I think the difference between our generation and theirs does point towards a change. Now women go ahead and have the children, and take the career hit. For some that means being boxed out. Others survive the hit (some do — we shouldn’t pretend not).

  23. laura–not an idiot. I did the same thing for my spring course, in part because i had a co-teacher who is a wonderful teacher, but has *no* life outside of her work, so wanted to work on the class all. the. time. I almost always go over, too. I start low, so that if I had a half-hour or hour here and there, I won’t be losing out on much. I would totally do more if the job were permanent or more than one class. I’d feel more committed.
    The big reason I took this job–5 students max! It’s a shortened course–5 weeks, so yeah, I may be pumping out the hours once in a while, but 5 weeks. Normally, when I teach writing classes, 20 students, 5 papers, lots of prep. It’s killer and my wage goes down to like $2/hr.

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