Families as They Really Are

CORRECTION: The original version of this post had a major error – the second trend was coded wrong, showing percent married instead of percent single! I’ve correct it, and apologize for the error.

Earlier this month there was a funny segment on Fox and Friends where they took seriously a fake social media campaign, supposedly led by feminists, to end Father’s Day. “More of this nasty feminist rhetoric,” and The Princeton Mom (Susan Patton). “They’re not just interested in ending Father’s Day, they’re interested in ending men.”

Then Tucker Carlson jumped in to ask, “Why is it good for women? I mean, there’s a reason there are more women living in poverty now than at any time in my lifetime, it’s because there are fewer married women. I mean, when you crush men, you hurt women.”

His comment is doubly twisted. First, it supposes that the historical rise of single mothers is the result of feminists crushing men (thanks, Hanna Rosin). The decline in marriage is related to the falling economic fortunes of men, especially relative to women, but I don’t think you can lay much of that at the feet of feminists.

Second, are there really more women in poverty now because of single motherhood? Yes and no. Here are three trends (all based on civilian non-institutionalized women ages 18+, from the Current Population Survey):

1. Poverty is rising among all women (but still hasn’t reached 1990s levels)

Although the proportion of children born to women who aren’t married has increased – doubling in the past three decades – that doesn’t tell the whole poverty story. Because women’s employment opportunities increased during that time (and fertility rates fell), women’s poverty rates are lower now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s peaks.

Zooming in on the period from the low poverty point in 2001, you can see that the recent increase in poverty has affected single and married women, and the proportional increase is actually twice as great for married women (more than a one-third increase).

womenspoverty.xlsx

2. The percentage of poor women who are not married has risen (corrected trend!)

Nevertheless, the percentage of poor women who are not married has risen. During the 2000s recession, the percentage of poor women who are married hit an all-time low of 30%. Over the last four decades, as marriage rates have fallen, women’s poverty has become more concentrated among unmarried women. Single women have much higher poverty rates than married women, and the vast majority of poor women are not married. However, in the last 15 years, as single motherhood has become more common, the percentage of poor women who are not married has been basically flat.

fatra-pov2

3. The percentage of poor people who are women is falling

Diane Pearce wrote, “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare” in 1978, as single motherhood was increasing and women’s wages relative to men’s appeared flat. As the proportion of poor adults that were women approached two-thirds, this shocking term caught on. However, since then — as women’s earnings increased and wages fell for many men — that proportion has fallen to 58%.

womenspoverty.xlsx

These facts are not the whole story of poverty in the U.S. But they should be enough to stop the politically convenient simplification repeated by the Tucker Carlsons of our time. The problem of poverty is not a problem of women’s failure to marry.

Cross-posted on Families As They Really Are

Ten of the nation’s top experts on women in the workforce provided history, facts, and analysis of in CCF’s symposium (.pdf) on the Golden Jubilee of the Equal Pay Act last June, 2013, all edited by Stephanie Coontz. For the 51st anniversary—and coinciding with today’s White House Summit on Working Familieshere’s an overview by Virginia Rutter and Stephanie Coontz.

By Abbie Rowe (JFK Presidential Library and Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is now fifty-one years ago this month, on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, amending the earlier Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, to “prohibit discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers.” So, how’s that going? The Council on Contemporary Families convened an online symposium last June representing the latest thinking from pre-eminent work-family scholars, top woman executive Sheryl Sandberg, and advocates for low-wage workers and unions.

The good news: Gains in pay, education, and opportunity

  • Women’s pay in the United States has gone from 59 percent of men’s in 1962 to almost 80 percent today. Less than 14 percent of women were managers then; three times as many are now. Seven percent of wives out earned their spouses then; 28 percent do now (See Cohen).
  • Today, women in the U.S. make up nearly half of the paid workforce (See Milkman)—something not true even in gender-egalitarian Scandinavian countries: Norway and Finland are at 44 percent (See Seguino).
  • In education, U.S. women now earn nearly half of all law and medical degrees and a majority of BAs. The good news extends internationally, even to countries with very traditional gender mores: Over the past 35 years, the Arab region saw a remarkable rise in the ratio of female to male secondary enrollment rates, from 59 to 98 percent; in the same time, Africa rose from 54 to 85 percent (See Seguino).
  • Women’s earnings influence life at home. Each thousand dollars of earnings for women is associated with a 14-minute reduction in daily housework—and working wives’ proportion of housework has dropped significantly since the early 1960s (See Cohen).

The semi-good news

University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen reports that in 1962 wives did six times more housework as husbands. Today they do only 1.7 times as much. You’d think that if this rate of change continued, before 2023 men and women would be doing exactly the same. But, according to Cohen, that is not how it has worked. There hasn’t been any appreciable change in shares of housework since the early 1990s, and he shows that the stall in housework equity is related to a stall in pay equity.

Looks like a victory, sounds like a victory, but is it really a victory?

The rise in women’s educational attainment has not been accompanied by a proportionate expansion of their political voice. Women hold 18.3 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress. University of Vermont’s Stephanie Seguino profiles representation around the world: “The global average in 2010 was 19 percent, ranging from a low regional average of 8 percent in Arab countries to a high of 26 percent in rich countries. (Sweden stands out amongst rich countries at 45 percent, surpassed only by Rwanda at 56 percent).”

Bias against women continues. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reports, “Even in the U.S., a recent study found that when faculty evaluated identical lab manager applications, the one with a man’s name on it received a higher starting salary.”

And some of the relative gains for women do not represent actual improvement in their wages but declines in men’s wages. “In 1979, the median hourly wage for women was 62.7 percent of the median hourly wage for men; by 2012, it was 82.8 percent. However, a big chunk of that improvement – more than a quarter of it — happened because of men’s wage losses, rather than women’s wage gains,” reports Heidi Shierholz from the Economic Policy Institute. Similarly, Seguino reports that in 96 of the 135 countries where gender employment gaps have narrowed since 1991, the convergence is partly accounted for by declines in men’s employment rates.

With women as with men, elites are taking a greater share of growth in income. In 2010, high earning women made more than 1.5 times as much as the typical man, reports Northwestern’s Leslie McCall, more than in previous decades. But in a new development earnings have been flat for the typical woman over the last decade. This means that women’s success continues to be concentrated at the top of the ladder. Women in the middle and the bottom have been losing relative ground along with men during this period of growing inequality. (Keep in mind, Catalyst reports, women’s gains at the very top have been modest: four percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.)

The interaction of gender and race inequality produces an optical illusion about the progress of minority women. At first glance it may appear that there is more gender equality among minority men and women than among whites. Jane Farrell and Sarah Jane Glynn, from the Center for American Progress, report that Hispanic or Latina women make 88 percent of what Latinos do and African American women make 90 percent of what their male counterparts make, whereas white women earn just 81 percent of what white men make.

But when we add race to gender, these pay gaps become a veritable chasm. African American women earn 36 percent less than white men and Latinas a mere 45 percent. The gap between the earnings of Asian women and white men is smaller, just 12 percent, but Asian American women earn just 73 percent of what Asian American men make.

Trouble spots: What public sector unions have to do with women’s equality

CUNY’s Ruth Milkman reports how unions—and women in them—spearheaded the campaign for the Equal Pay Act, even though they made up only 18.3 percent of members. Today, women make up 45 percent of all union members, but unions have declined: In 1960 one in four workers was in a union; today, that is down to one in ten. The historic decline hit private sector unions, where male unions used to be strong, first and hardest, says Milkman. But “starting in 2011, a wave of state-level legislation weakening collective bargaining rights for public sector workers has directly targeted teachers and other unionized female-dominated occupations.”  This attack is a real problem since women union workers earn an average of more than $5 an hour more than nonunion ones and have more benefits and job security as well—and nonunion workers in unionized fields benefit from this advantage.

More trouble spots: bias against caregivers

University of Massachusetts’ Joya Misra reports that penalties facing working mothers – but not working fathers — are now the major source of gender pay differences. Stanford’s Shelley Correll explains: “When we compare the earnings of mothers and childless women who work in the same types of jobs, have the same level of education, have the same amount of experience and are equal on a host of other dimensions, mothers still earn five percent lower hourly wages per child.”

Mothers also face difficulties getting hired in the first place. On average, Correll’s studies show, when employers compare a childless woman and a mother with the same qualifications, the mother is rated as less committed to her job, despite the absence of any evidence supporting this perception, and this substantially reduces her chances of getting the job.

University of California, Hastings School of Law’s Joan Williams reports on a number of remarkable cases that highlight a legal strategy for addressing such bias: “One vitally important and fast-developing area of law is family responsibilities discrimination (FRD), which involves pregnant women or mothers, fathers who seek an active role in family care, or adults caring for elders or ill family members.” FRD suits grew 400 percent in the decade before 2008.

What else can we do? Change policy and attitudes

“Motherhood penalties vary substantially cross-nationally, suggesting that social policies can reduce or exacerbate them,” explains Joya Misra. For example, Misra explains, “The per-child wage penalty is 9.5 percent in countries with minimal public childcare for infants and toddlers, but shrinks to 4.3 percent in countries with more expansive public childcare programs.” Availability of leave matters—too little is harmful to women’s opportunities, but so is too much. Misra reports, “Employment and wages also may suffer when mothers are offered very long, unpaid/poorly paid leaves, such as three-year ‘care leaves.’ Here mothers lose valuable job experience, and may find themselves in jobs with little prospect for career advancement.”

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg—who just recently started LeanIn.org–reminds us that women have internalized some of the social prejudices against them, starting with lower salary expectations, for instance, which provides employers with an excuse for offering them less. She argues that wome must cooperate to improve their own self-confidence as well as to change the attitudes of others

Photo by AlisaRyan via Flickr CC.
Photo by AlisaRyan via Flickr CC.

Everybody loves to talk about stress—including work/family aka work/life balance stress. But it is a tricky topic that can bring casual listeners to the conclusion that something like stress—that is experienced as personally as enhanced heart rates or elevated cortisol levels—must require personal solutions. Sociology points in another direction.

To wit, recently the Council on Contemporary Families shared a briefing report from Penn State sociologist Sarah Damaske about research she and colleagues conducted that showed that working people have higher cortisol levels at home than at work. Though stress is experienced in the body, it is ultimately about context, about policy, not about individual character or family-values sentimentality. more...