Women As Half the Workforce Does Not Equal Equality
In this “mancession” economy with men losing more jobs than women, women have edged up to constitute about half the workforce. Have a look at some of the headlines on the topic over the last year. “A Women’s Nation Changes Everything” says the Shriver Report, “Women and Work: We Did It” says the Economist. It seems Rosie the Riveter has won the day. Atlantic Magazine even pronounced it as “The End of Men.”
But such sweeping tales of women’s equality are misleading. And when layered onto continuing and powerful gender behavior norms, the myth of equality circulating in American popular culture further obscures systemic gender differences, making them seem normal, and perhaps inevitable. But the reality is that gender equality has not been mainstreamed. Although there have indeed been remarkable changes in recent decades in women’s status, including increased participation in the labor force, important economic and power inequalities between men and women persist in modern family and work life.
However, the frontlines of inequality are shifting now. It’s less about sexism and more about caregiving. Even as women take on more paid work, home life has changed less than you might think. As sociologists and psychologists have observed, a “schema of devotion to family caregiving” for women continues to powerfully influence the way women and men work and care for their families—and how they understand themselves. The impact? Women today still provide the lion’s share of unpaid family work, doing twice the housework and child care as men. And men still do more market work and bring in more income.
Below I sketch out some highlights of the modern landscape on work allocation between men and women. I recognize there isn’t a single depiction of family life. So please understand that what follows is a short overview describing general patterns without detailing the important variations that lie behind the data. Also, the gendered pattern I describe recurs among heterosexual couples. Same sex couples are less likely to follow this pattern. Among other resources, I am tapping into persuasive and recent research available from time use studies from 1965-2000 evaluated in Changing Family Rhythms of American Family Life, a book by sociologists Bianchi, Robinson and Milkie. It’s a terrific resource if you are interested in more and more varied information.
The demands for family care have amplified and expanded. Over the last several decades, parenting has become more intensive, with studies showing that parents are managing to spend as much time with their children (or possibly more) than in the 1960’s when a majority of children had at home mothers. Additionally, as investments in children increase, many young people today tend to stay in the care of their parents long beyond age 18, as “quasi-dependents” experiencing what the scientific literature calls “emerging adulthood.” At the same time, many families also provide care for an elderly relative. Studies show that one in four working Americans has significant responsibilities to care for an aging family member. Like child care and housework, elder care work is disproportionately performed by women—by daughters and daughter’s-in law. Indeed, a great number of women will take care of elderly loved ones longer than they care for children.
How then are families managing to meet the demands of both family work and paid work? No doubt, both men and women share the load and work hard. Recent data from Changing Rhythms show that if you add up both paid work and unpaid family work, on average women and men work roughly the same amount of hours—about 65 hours per week (for parents with children under 18). That’s an increase in total hours worked compared to a generation ago. Yet in terms of who does what kind of work and how much, gendered role specialization has decreased but persists—men remain mostly breadwinners and women still are predominantly caregivers.
What are the modern contours? One important change on the homefront is that men do more housework and child care than their fathers did. So now the ratio of this work that women do compared to men is down to 2 to 1. Another change is that women have simply decreased the hours they spend doing housework (its down to about 17 hours per week for single and married mothers). Also, parents fragment and incorporate their leisure time into time with children and on children’s activities. And, as you suspected, multitasking reigns.
On the workfront, the sheer number of women in the workforce and especially mothers has increased dramatically. But that is just one part of the story. In assessing economic equality between the sexes, the eye-opening data is how many fewer hours of market work women do comparatively. A large cohort of women scale back their hours of employment to make time for family work. For example, looking at two parent families with children under 6, Bianchi and her colleagues find that only 31% have both parents working full time, and 37% have only the father working. Also telling, if you combine employed and at home mothers, the average hours of market work across all mothers (with children under 18) is 1200 hours per year. Excluding at home mothers, employed mothers average 1700 market hours per year. That falls far short of the 2080 hours typically expected for a year round fulltime employee. One last dataset: among employed parents, compare married fathers 44.6 average market hours per week to the 33.5 hours by married mothers and the 36.9 hours by single mothers. Scaling back work in these ways creates significant differences in terms of earning power.
When women do work fulltime year round, the most recent data available on the gender wage gap is that women earn 77.1 percent of what men earn.
It is clear that women have not achieved economic equality through employment. Instead, the contemporary allocation in families of market work much more to men and family care work much more to women greatly diminishes women’s earning power in the market.
With this as a backdrop, in an upcoming post I will describe some of the challenges and opportunites for equality in marriage law. (I also have a current project that includes cohabitants.) There have been real advances to equality within family life that might deepen. But for now, I’ll end with a few questions to consider: How much do the workplaces you are familiar with make space for both satisfying work and caregiving? In legal employment context? What about in the increasingly pressured academic world?