12 July 2010

Women and Work: The Numbers Are In

From the world of research on women in the workplace, two new interesting sets of data you may want to take note of.

The first comes from the U.S. Department of Labor, which just released 2009 earnings numbers [pdf] for men and women in the US. According to their report, women under 35 are, for the first time, earning more than 90% of what their male peers earn for full-time, salaried work.

That's great news -- and the hope is that this points towards a future where full parity is actually visible on the horizon. But troubling signs remain, including that women over age 35 continue to find themselves earning just 75% of what their male colleagues take home. That number has barely budged in decades, and it doesn't take too much effort to figure out why. As the New York Times suggested:
Women who are older are probably more likely to have dropped out of the labor force at some point to have children, and years spent away from the job reduce an employee’s potential pay. Plus, perhaps age 35 is around the time when employers start seriously looking at workers for potential promotion to higher-paying jobs, like management positions.
In other words, women over 35 continue to pay the price both for our country's lack of quality affordable childcare (which is generally why women feel the need to "drop out" of the workforce in the first place) and for the persistent sexism that keeps most women out of executive and managerial positions.

Will the creep towards parity among younger workers be enough to overcome both of those realities? Nobody yet seems sure. But another set of data, from the Center for American Progress, offers a few other hopeful signs about American attitudes on women and work.

This new study found "strong majorities of men and women agreeing that the rise of women in the workforce is a positive development for society -- a belief that crossed partisan, ideological, racial and ethnic, and even generational lines." Notably, it found particular support for the "rising status of women in the workplace" among the Latino population.

Among other trends, the poll suggests that Latinos are among the strongest proponents of new policies that improve work-life balance, are more progressive than other groups on the issue of women and politics, and are much more likely to say that it is important to them that their daughters have access to interesting careers.

In some ways this isn't too surprising. As our recent poll [pdf] with the Center for Community Change found, Latinas have been particularly hard hit by the global recession, with two-thirds saying their personal situation has been affected by the country’s economic situation and more than half reporting that they or someone in their household has lost a job in the past year. With that much economic insecurity hitting their communities, Latinos are likely looking for new solutions, wherever they may come from. And women are the most underutilized resource this country has to offer.

If we have any luck, folks in all communities will follow the lead of our Latino brothers and sisters and support policies that make it easier for women to enter, remain part of and lead in the workplace -- not to mention get paid fairly for the work they're doing. Forty plus years into the second wave of feminism, it seems like it's about time.

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