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?

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6 Responses

  1. AYY says:

    I think a better question to consider is whether the line of inquiry described in your posting is well advised.

    You assume equality means identity of outcomes, when to most of us it means equality of opportunity. Unless you can explain why identity of outcomes is important, your argument doesn’t get very far.

    Your statement that women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn doesn’t mean much because you haven’t said anything about controlling for the nature of the job and experience. If men get a disproportionate number of degrees in engineering, and women get a disproportionate number of degrees in women’s studies and sociology, then that might have something to do with the wage differential

    You end by saying you will describe some of the challenges and opportunities for equality in marriage law. The tenor of your posting suggests that you don’t mean how the law might be changed to make it more difficult for women to get ex parte restraining orders kicking men out of their homes, or how to even up the chances for men in custody disputes, or whether the repeal of the Bradley amendment might be a good idea so that men who are out of work don’t get tossed in jail for failing to pay child support that far exceeds what they’re currently making.

    As it is men are avoiding marriage in droves because the legal system is so stacked against them if things don’t work out. Proposals for equality in marriage by an advocate for equal outcomes might be an interesting intellectual exercise, but will do nothing to reverse this trend. They will simply foster a climate of male-bashing, and will result in more and more single moms.

  2. Orin Kerr says:


    Can you offer a test — or, perhaps, a few tests — that you think we should use to identify when we have a state of true equality?

  3. Alicia Kelly says:

    Thanks Orin. You (and the earlier commenter in a different way) ask an important question: what is the content of equality? I don’t think there is one answer to that, but I hope its possible to develop some general principles. I am exploring the question in current project on gender and the family economy (partly previewed in my post).

    I don’t see equality as a status that is achieved, once and for all. It is dynamic ideal to work toward and it can mean different things in different contexts. One understanding I like is that equality is a commitment to a process that takes into account the needs and goals of all individuals in a shifting environment. That means each person would have power to influence their environment to develop and serve their well being. Influence doesn’t mean you always get what you want. But the framework supports every person’s voice in determining outcomes. Women as a group have less power to shape their access economic resources—one measure of well being. And law has a role to play in that.

  4. JD says:

    “Women as a group have less power to shape their access economic resources—one measure of well being.”

    But don’t women,at least married women, also have MORE power than men to decide whether they want to work for wages full-time, part-time, or not at all? There are far more SAHMs than SAHDs, and I know of many women who decided they didn’t want to work anymore after their first or second kid, sometimes over hubby’s objection. I don’t know of any guy whose done the same (I know there are some, I’m talking about my wide range of acquaintances).

    Most jobs suck. Married women, but not men, tend to be the ones with the power to opt out of them.

  5. AYY says:

    This is from Dr. Helen’s blog:
    “I read a short book from Encounter Books today entitled How Obama’s Gender Policies Undermine America. The book highlights how women are doing much better than men in today’s America. They live longer, face a significantly lower unemployment rate, are awarded substantially more BAs, and MAs and have lower rates of incarceration, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Career feminists constantly harp on how women need government intervention and hand-holding because they are treated unfairly. For the most part, however, women in the academic world are treated better than men. The author, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, makes an important point:

    …in some cases, women are treated better than men when it comes to academic tenure positions. Between 1999 and 2003, according to the National Academy of Sciences, although women only represented 11 percent of tenure-track job applicants in electrical engineering and 12 percent of applicants in physics, they received 32 percent and 20 percent of the job offers in these fields, respectively.

    Not that it would help, but maybe some of these “feminists” (more like female-privilege specialists) who insist on more and more affirmative action for women in the academic world should read a book that tells a more realistic account of what is really happening with many males in our society: Boys in Poverty: A Framework for Understanding Dropout.”


  6. Alicia Kelly says:

    There have been a few comments expressing concern about some challenges that men face. It might be helpful to know that most feminists, including me, value and advocate equality of status for all persons, regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic class. Feminist concerns do include equality for men. Specifically, I share your concern that men’s opportunities for caregiving should be expanded.