More women work, but what about the family?

Carolyn Moynihan
12 Jan 2010
Reproduced with Permission

In an essay headed "Female power" The Economist has celebrated "one of the most remarkable revolutions of the past 50 years" -- that is, "millions of people who were once dependent on men have taken control of their own economic fates". In other words, women have gone out to work and stayed there.

More than that, they are taking over the workplace: within the next few months they will cross the 50 per cent threshold and become the majority of the American workforce. The Economist is chuffed that this has been a "quiet revolution" producing "very little friction" -- despite the fact that an increasing number of women are "taking a sledgehammer to the remaining glass ceilings."

It's the rich world the magazine is talking about, of course, and even there progress has not been uniform -- Japan and Italy are lagging well behind in female employment, and women earn substantially less than men on average and are severely under-represented at the top of organisations. Still, the glass "is much nearer to being half full than half empty."

How has this been achieved? Feminist politics are only part of the answer, the essay suggests. In the rich world there has been a growing demand for women's labour as the service sector has grown and manufacturing declined. The vacuum cleaner has played its part. Higher education has expanded and women have pursued business and management degrees rather than education.

But the most important innovation has been the contraceptive pill. The spread of the pill has not only allowed women to get married later. It has also increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills, particularly slow-burning skills that are hard to learn and take many years to pay off. The knowledge that they would not have to drop out of, say, law school to have a baby made law school more attractive.

A recent Rockefeller Foundation/Time survey found that three-quarters of Americans were happy with this change.

But few are cheering. This is partly because young women take their opportunities for granted. It is partly because for many women work represents economic necessity rather than liberation. The rich world's growing army of single mothers have little choice but to work. A growing proportion of married women have also discovered that the only way they can preserve their households' living standards is to join their husbands in the labour market. In America families with stay-at-home wives have the same inflation-adjusted income as similar families did in the early 1970s. But the biggest reason is that the revolution has brought plenty of problems in its wake.

The Economist sums up those problems as "Production versus reproduction". Many women can't climb the career ladder far, let alone reach the top, because they have to choose between motherhood and careers. And -- bad news for ageing rich societies -- not all of them are choosing motherhood; in Switzerland 40 per cent of them are childless. Of those who do choose motherhood, a significant number don't manage to return to the workforce and others have to settle for part-time work. Together with those who withdraw voluntarily these latter groups represent "a loss to collective investment in talent".

And the problems don't end there. Those who do work worry constantly that spend too little time with their children as they "juggle" the twin demands of work and child-rearing. Childcare is expensive and childminders untrained. Schools finish too early and the holidays are too long.

The solution lies, according to The Economist, in a combination of public and private sector initiatives that will allow women time to have babies and for child-rearing, and also substitute for them while they are working -- things like paid maternity leave, parenting allowances in the early years, flexible working, child-care centres, pre-schools.

One possibility that the magazine prefers not to consider is a stabilisation or reversal of the feminisation of the workforce. It says the trend is "almost certain to continue". In the current crisis the flip side of this is men losing their (heavy lifting) jobs and higher male unemployment -- especially in the middle to lower ranks of society. Unhappy and unmarriageable men don't sound like a good omen for the future. Nor does a female talent pool largely dependent on the pill (not forgetting the supporting role of abortion) for new blood, however great male economists and Economist editors think this manipulation of women's bodies is.

There are a lot of issues to address here, but the most basic is the need to put the family at the centre of society -- not just women or men, let alone the economy or the workforce -- and work out what is best for the whole family unit. Without that, the rest is going to crumble anyway.