Jul 29, 2008

Women Leaving the Workforce Due to Poor Economy: But Is That All?

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Women are leaving the workforce in their prime earning years, according to an article in the New York Times that claims, "women are being afflicted on a large scale by the same troubles as men: downturns, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages, or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut. And they are responding as men have, by dropping out or disappearing for a while." 

The title of the article -- "Women Are Now Equal as Victims of Poor Economy" -- may be right. But being equally subject to economic downturn does not "equal" make. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004, women in the workforce earned an average of 77 cents to every dollar a male earned.

This comparison isn't necessarily apples to apples -- it doesn't compare two individuals in the exact same job.  But another study shows that one year out of college, women make 80 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, with a big pay disparity even when working in the same field. (The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, recognized this pay disparity and seeks to correct it. And other legislation on both the state and federal level has sought to protect women from this and other sex discrimination that is still alive and well in today's workforce [pdf].) 

So is there some justification for the disparity? According to some, men make choices that "lead to higher annual salaries," such as working in jobs that require extensive travel, hazardous assignments, or provide less "free time." That may be true, but it seems a little disingenuous. Most obviously, in childbearing couples, men and women are not created equal, and some of these salary-enhancing factors put childbearing women at a disadvantage. It may be hard for pregnant women to travel extensively or take on hazardous assignments, for example (and there are enough lawsuits to show they may face employer criticism for trying). 

Only women become pregnant, deliver babies, and breastfeed. Child-bearing women must exit the workforce for, at very least, the amount of time it takes for prenatal care, delivery, and recovery. Men, by comparison, need not take any time at all (though many do, to attend appointments, provide care, and bond with new infants).  Is it really any surprise, then, that mothers are more likely than fathers to work part time or take leave when children are born? Or that two wage earners, faced with the high cost of child care, might decide that the lower wage earner should stay home -- or perhaps not immediately seek to reenter the workforce after a layoff, when the economy is bad? 

So yes, the economy may be hitting men and women equally, but there's no question -- other factors aren't, and there's more to the story of what's driving women from the workforce. 

Alayna Schroeder