February 17, 2013
"Why Gender Equality Stalled"
That's the title of an excellent piece in today's New York Times by Stephanie Coontz. In a few short paragraphs, she paints a vivid picture of how starkly the contemporary American workplace differs from much of the rest of the world, in ways that directly undermine the Church's views on the place of the family as society's most effective 'school of the virtues." And, as she makes clear, this is no longer (if it ever was) just a "woman's issue."
In today’s political climate, it’s startling to remember that 80 years ago, in 1933, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to establish a 30-hour workweek. The bill failed in the House, but five years later the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 gave Americans a statutory 40-hour workweek. By the 1960s, American workers spent less time on the job than their counterparts in Europe and Japan.
Between 1990 and 2000, however, average annual work hours for employed Americans increased. By 2000, the United States had outstripped Japan — the former leader of the work pack — in the hours devoted to paid work. Today, almost 40 percent of men in professional jobs work 50 or more hours a week, as do almost a quarter of men in middle-income occupations. Individuals in lower-income and less-skilled jobs work fewer hours, but they are more likely to experience frequent changes in shifts, mandatory overtime on short notice, and nonstandard hours. And many low-income workers are forced to work two jobs to get by. When we look at dual-earner couples, the workload becomes even more daunting. As of 2000, the average dual-earner couple worked a combined 82 hours a week, while almost 15 percent of married couples had a joint workweek of 100 hours or more.
Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the F.M.L.A. turned out to be the inadequate end.
Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.
Out of nearly 200 countries studied by Jody Heymann, dean of the school of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her team of researchers for their new book, “Children’s Chances,” 180 now offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers, and 81 offer paid leave to fathers. They found that 175 mandate paid annual leave for workers, and 162 limit the maximum length of the workweek. The United States offers none of these protections.
A 1997 European Union directive prohibits employers from paying part-time workers lower hourly rates than full-time workers, excluding them from pension plans or limiting paid leaves to full-time workers. By contrast, American workers who reduce hours for family reasons typically lose their benefits and take an hourly wage cut.
Is it any surprise that American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than workers in any of our European counterparts? Or that women’s labor-force participation has been overtaken? In 1990, the United States ranked sixth in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is made up of most of the globe’s wealthier countries. By 2010, according to an economic research paper by Cornell researchers Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, released last month, we had fallen to 17th place, with about 30 percent of that decline a direct result of our failure to keep pace with other countries’ family-friendly work policies. American women have not abandoned the desire to combine work and family. Far from it. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1997, 56 percent of women ages 18 to 34 and 26 percent of middle-aged and older women said that, in addition to having a family, being successful in a high-paying career or profession was “very important” or “one of the most important things” in their lives. By 2011, fully two-thirds of the younger women and 42 percent of the older ones expressed that sentiment.
Nor have men given up the ideal of gender equity. A 2011 study by the Center for Work and Family at Boston College found that 65 percent of the fathers they interviewed felt that mothers and fathers should provide equal amounts of caregiving for their children. And in a 2010 Pew poll, 72 percent of both women and men between 18 and 29 agreed that the best marriage is one in which husband and wife both work and both take care of the house.
BUT when people are caught between the hard place of bad working conditions and the rock wall of politicians’ resistance to family-friendly reforms, it is hard to live up to such aspirations. The Boston College study found that only 30 percent of the fathers who wanted to share child care equally with their wives actually did so, a gap that helps explain why American men today report higher levels of work-family conflict than women. Under the circumstances, how likely is it that the young adults surveyed by Pew will meet their goal of sharing breadwinning and caregiving?
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