Nice Work

Big news. Feminist media are covering unions. Thanks to a report from GWP friend John Schmitt over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the feminist blogosphere is on the case–at Ms, at Feministing, at Feminist Majority. There’s also an excellent editorial in the San Diego Union Tribune.

The CEPR report, “Unions and Upward Mobility for Women Workers,” identifies what’s in the union movement for women. Schmitt reports that women in unions make 11.2 percent more than their non union peers. What’s the value of that? “All else equal, joining a union raises a woman’s wage as much as a full-year of college, and a union raises the chances a woman has health insurance by more than earning a four-year college degree,” reports Schmitt in a press release.

GWP talked with Schmitt about the report, to explore whether it is relevant to think of unions as a feminist institution, and here are a few thoughts he had for GWP:

GWP: What has changed for women in unions?
Schmitt: Women are now 45 percent of all unionized workers, up from 35 percent in 1983. If the trend holds,  women will be the majority of unionized workers by 2020.

GWP: What’s the significance–besides the increased wages you report?
Schmitt: There is a perception that unions are about white guys in their fifties who work in manufacturing and live in Michigan and Ohio. But, our study, which is one in a series focusing on different kinds of workers, shows that increasingly unions are about men and women. Union men and women are Latino, African American, white, Asian, and from other racial and ethnic groups, and more than ever union workers are in the service sector. I think the facts help to counteract some of our old-fashioned preconceptions of unions as not being representative of the workforce as a whole. For women today, unions have the potential to be a freestanding institution of the larger feminist agenda.

GWP: How are unions doing on health insurance?
Schmitt: Health insurance and pensions were two of the areas we examined. Part of the current health insurance “system” in the United States has been that marriage and jobs are gateways to health insurance, and this so-called system has the disadvantages of often making women dependent on their partner status for health insurance. In our study, we found that while 51 percent of non union women had health insurance, 75 percent of union women did. For low wage workers, the benefits were even more striking–union membership doubled a woman’s odds of having health insurance. Without a union, 26 percent of low-wage working women have health insurance. With a union, 59 percent of low-wage working women have health insurance. These large union advantages remained large even after we controlled for a host of demographic factors such as age and education levels.

GWP: What about women’s pensions?
Schmitt: Our retirement system has historically counted on women’s relying on their husband’s pensions–another case of dependence. Unions change that, nearly tripling the likelihood that low-wage women in unions have some kind of pension. While 21 percent of non union, low-wage women workers have a pension, 58 percent of these women do if they are in a union. For women workers overall, the pattern is similar: 43% of women workers without a union have a pension, while 76 percent of women workers with a union do. Again, the union effect holds even after we control for demographic differences between the union and non union groups.

GWP: What’s up ahead?
Schmitt: One of the key drivers of second-wave feminism was the incorporation of women into the workforce. But getting to work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for advancing the cause of women–and everybody, for that matter. What is happening today is that unions are increasingly acting to defend the interests of working women of all social classes and backgrounds, over issues such as flexible work schedules, extending the Family Medical Leave Act, and improving access to paid sick days and paid vacation.

Virginia Rutter

As a sociologist, I like to break things down. So here we go.

We all know that women still earn less than men. Women’s wages are still a fraction of men’s—about 78 cents on the dollar—that’s just for full time workers. (For African American women, the number is 62 cents, Latinas, 53 cents.) Even when we “control for” education and experience, about 12% of the difference between men’s and women’s earnings cannot be explained. (Here at GWP we’ve discussed women in the failing economy and had dialogue about it, too.) So here’s the perpetual question: why.

Mind you, when we do “control for” education and experience, that means that we are not going to take into consideration the way that inequality influences who gets an education and what kind it is, nor the conditions under which one is able to ply her trade. We aren’t going to talk about how women’s and men’s so-called “choices” in the job market are conditioned on family leave policies that end up leaving women responsible for the 2nd shift at home more so than men. What I’m saying is that all those things aren’t choices at all.

But, I am also saying that inequality is complicated—and sneaky.

Let’s take the following puzzle. In 30 years of survey research, women report that they must work harder than men do. Why? A Gender & Society article by Elizabeth Gorman and Julie Kmec offers evidence for that sinking feeling that a lot of women have that “We (have to) try harder.”

Using surveys of working men and women in the United State and Britain, they found that women are 21-22% more likely than men to report that they work very hard at their jobs. That number is even higher when the kinds of jobs are taken into account, and it also is higher when women are working in fields dominated by other women. What is going on? The researchers investigated myriad explanations before determining what they see as the most likely explanation, namely, that “employers apply stricter performance standards to women than to men.”

How’d the researchers get there? Here are some questions they asked—and the answers they found:

Is it that men and women do different jobs? In other words, whose jobs are “harder”? They found that men’s and women’s jobs are different; though some jobs employ men and women equally (real estate, for example, is 50-50), other positions are dominated by either men (such as firefighters, 95-5) or women (like nursing, 10-90). In some ways men’s jobs are harder—and in other ways women’s jobs are harder. Women are more likely to be in part time jobs—these are more stressful and provide fewer rewards. Women are less likely to be in union jobs—and having a union makes your work life better, as reported in this and many other studies (including a forthcoming December 3, 2009 CEPR paper on the topic). Men have jobs that are on average more physically strenuous, though jobs typically held by women in childcare and health care can also be demanding physically. The punch-line: when men and women hold the same job, women report work harder.

Do women feel like they are working harder because they are working a second shift—taking care of the family? It depends where you live. In England, the answer is no—being married or a parent doesn’t influence the way women report how hard they work. In the United States, the answer is yes—being married or having kids makes women report working harder. Why the difference? I suspect it is because the UK has better day-care and family leave supports, which mean parents (and in this case, especially mothers) don’t feel as stressed as they do in the US. It doesn’t explain everything, though.

Do women look to different social norms than men do—do women expect jobs not to be as hard? The authors examine this by looking at jobs mainly held by men versus jobs mainly held by women…and there were no differences in job effort. As they explain, “If gender-specific effort norms exist, we should see a greater difference … in highly gender-segregated jobs….” But they didn’t. So the answer to this question is no.

What about social desirability? Is there something that would lead women to inflate their responses and men to underestimate theirs in order to make an impression on the interviewers? Let’s say men and women are influenced by traditional ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” when they answer questions about work. Does tradition say that men would act like they slack at their jobs? Or that they would seem more “masculine” if they talked about hard work? Does tradition suggest that women should act like they are very hard working in their field, or that they would be more feminine when their job was something lightly held, done with less intensity? I don’t know, and the researchers don’t know. But given that one could see it go either way, the notion that women had a special incentive to over-report, or men to underreport, doesn’t hold water.

So….what else could it be? After carefully examining a host of explanations for the fact that women report working harder than men report, and testing those explanations empirically, the researchers conclude: “The most plausible interpretation…is that employers impose higher performance standards on women than on men, even when men and women hold the same jobs.”

Inequality is complicated. It hasn’t disappeared. It isn’t a consequence of choices that men and women make any more than racial or ethnic inequality is a choice. But all these things can change. The first step? Employers need to recognize that they are at risk of pressing their bias in informal and unconscious ways.

-Virginia Rutter

Perhaps someone forwarded you this wacky protest song in support of McCain-Palin by Hank Williams, Jr., that’s going around. Here’s a favorite line from this Palin anthem:

“If you mess with her cubs, she’s gonna take off the gloves. It’s an American female tradition.”

My friend who forwarded me the lyrics quipped: “For me, this really hit the sweet spot of country music and radical feminist politics.” As another friend said, “Hey! It’s McFeminism!”

McFeminism, Red State feminism, call it what you will, but that sweet spot is exactly the point where gender politics and social class politics intersect.

Gender politics for working-class families often play out differently than do gender politics for middle-class families. Stephanie Coontz’s recent column goes into excellent detail, illustrating that, “how women address gender-based reproductive, sexual, and family interests varies by their class position and their personal options outside the family.”

So, for example, working-class folks, historically, are somewhat more likely to endorse traditional gender roles. In working-class families, according to this example, there’s a more traditional division of household labor. And as researchers show, working-class versus middle-class families even do sex differently. (Check out Coontz’s article “The Romantic Life of Brainiacs” for an analysis of sex and social class; page through to stuff on oral sex just for fun.)  Remember, of course, these are only statistical tendencies, not rigid patterns. They give us clues about how to sort out different feminisms.

So Sarah Palin has the promise to appeal to those who admire traditional feminine resourcefulness. In the traditional gender roles universe, the strong mama who does what it takes to defend her cubs (like a pitbull with lipstick) is a feminist heroine.

That’s powerful: I think of my mother who kept a gorgeously clean and attractive house, worked full time (sometimes at more than one job), finished college and went to graduate school, took care of four kids, tolerated an underemployed spouse, and seated the whole crew for breakfast and dinner every single day. This is an American Hero that we all can revere—maybe not as much as a prisoner of war, but certainly as much as Mom and apple pie. SP has qualities that remind us of our old fashioned, wage-earning, home-making, second-shift working moms—the very moms who gave many of us younger feminists greater courage to break the mold.

Luckily (for intergenerational harmony) my own Annie-get-your-gun kind of mom sees Sarah Palin as someone who, in the end, simply isn’t qualified for the job. In truth, my mom really thinks SP is pretty selfish, willing to do or say anything to get what she wants for herself—not that different from her running mate.

That might just be my mom. But it sure does make me think….

I can recognize and honor diversity among feminisms, but that doesn’t mean I–or my mom–can’t judge quality.

Virginia Rutter

Photo from People magazine

Back in 2002, David Brooks reported that during the 2000 presidential election, “a Time magazine-CNN poll asked voters whether they were in the top 1 percent of income earners. Nineteen percent reported that they were, and another 20 percent said that they expected to be there one day.” Forty percent of people were all thinking that they were in that tiny, tiny space reserved for one percent of the population. When I talk about this with my introduction to sociology students, they get it. They can do the math.

But this bit of bad math is part of being American. It is essentially American to identify up the social ladder (over at the NYT, Jennifer Steinhauer has explained this wonderfully). We’ve had the lending policy and credit cards encourage us to do so. Just like we buy Gucci bags or cars we can’t afford, we have, for the past 25 years, voted for leaders that don’t line up with what we need or can afford.

Joe the Plumber is like the disoriented 39 percent from back in 2000. JTP identifies with the economic interests above his pay grade. Even though he doesn’t make 250K and doesn’t have prospects of doing so any time soon, he’s kind of “saving for a rainy day” by voting for the candidate who will have good tax policy for the life he wishes he had, instead of voting for the candidate who has tax policies that can help him now and can help him reach his goal.

JTP requires another twist of logic, much like the bad math of the 40% above: JTP doesn’t imagine that he could afford the extra taxes (perhaps $900 more under Obama than McCain) if he is making 250K per year (Dean Baker explains the numbers and the NYT offers a handy illustration). Still, he feels like he can forego the $$ from an an Obama tax cut that he will get now at his current income level. Not as good as a Gucci bag, but the same idea.

I know it is tasteless these days to mention socialism or anything like that. Obama used humor to remind us that sharing your peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t the same thing as socialism. Even so, this has been a great week for my social theory students to study Marxism. They are learning about how consciousness of your real position in the economy really can help you decide how to make your life better. And they think that Joe the Plumber’s class consciousness is out of order. Maybe he needs to call “Karl the Marxist” as Hendrik Hertzberg suggests in the New Yorker this week. (Thanks Ira.)

PS: What does this have to do with feminism? Economic justice and sound financial reasoning are feminist issues full stop. But over at the Joint Economic Committee, where GWP favorite Heather Boushey works, they have just put out a report about how bad things are in our economy–especially for the household sector, where women are especially hard hit.

Virginia Rutter

Today we bring you our first official column from our sociologist from Framingham State College, Virginia Rutter, “Nice Work.” Nice work, Miss Virginia! -Deborah

Lotta talk about markets and the economy right now. But let’s change the subject for a moment and talk about marriage markets.

A “marriage market” refers to the notion that there are in any given community a bunch of people seeking mates, and they will make the best possible match that they can. Using the marriage market metaphor, researchers have noticed that characteristics of “the market” (I’m not talking Wall Street) will influence what kind of “deal” people get. When we say “he has high market value” on the marriage market, we mean he can get a better-than-average mate. When we say, “she can do better than that,” we think that her market value is above her partner’s.

Turns out that the marriage market itself can influence not just how “good” a partner you can find, but also how good the resulting relationship might be, too. An innovative new study in the current issue of the journal Demography examined what happens when there aren’t enough men in a (heterosexual) marriage market. UPenn’s Kristen Harknett compared unmarried mothers who live in communities where women outnumber men with those in communities that had a more favorable ratio. When the marriage market was tight—that is when women didn’t have a lot of men to choose from—their matches weren’t as good.

Now all this is not saying the guys didn’t have the right degree or weren’t cute enough. (In fact, Harknett found that “the economic quality of a male partner has much more to do with unmarried mother’s own characteristics than it does with the marriage market or local economy.”) I’m saying that the relationships themselves aren’t that good—there is more conflict, less supportiveness, and fewer signals of commitment. That’s right. The market forces don’t just affect what product you get. They affect how you enjoy your product! And so it makes marriage for these unmarried mothers less likely.

This is useful information. There’s a lot of research that shows the benefits of marriage—the benefits of a good, well functioning marriage—to the adults and any children who are in it. But, taking Harknett’s study to heart, marriage may not always be the rescue plan for single moms that we might otherwise think it is. Sometimes, a marriage bailout is a bust.

–Virginia Rutter