Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Don't overstate women's progress

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For several months now, we've been watching the percentage of women in the workplace creep toward the 50 percent mark.

The most recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Employment Statistics survey show that 49.9 percent of establishment payroll jobs are held by women.

The Economist magazine this month looked to the tipping point and illustrated its cover with the iconic biceps-flexing woman from World War II, altering the poster's original headline — "We Can Do It!" — to "We Did It!"

But it depends on what the definition of "it" is.

"It" may be cause for shrugs ... for celebration ... or concern.

Before I explain, please permit an interesting historical aside: That "We Can Do It!" woman is not Rosie the Riveter.

Rather, the poster was based on a United Press International photograph of Geraldine Doyle, a factory employee. An artist, J. Howard Miller, used the photograph to paint the "We Can Do It!" poster for the Westinghouse Co. It was one of a series of patriotic posters that hung in-house at Westinghouse.

The "real" Rosie the Riveter image was painted by Norman Rockwell, who used a 19-year-old telephone operator in Vermont named Mary Doyle for his model for a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover.

But back to the cautionary comment about crowing, "We Did It!"

First, saying that women are poised to hold half of all establishment payroll jobs is not the same as saying that women represent half of the work force.

They don't.

There still are about 10 million more men than women in the labor force.

It's true that this recession has been a "mancession." Layoffs hit industries and jobs dominated by men (construction and manufacturing) harder than those dominated by women (education and health care).

Even so, according to the labor bureau's Current Population Survey, there are about 7 million more employed men than women. That's because the population survey is a household survey. As such, it captures farm workers and other self-employed individuals who aren't included in the establishment payroll survey.

But even the household survey undercounts men; it excludes the military.

Whichever statistical series you put more weight on, it's obvious that women's presence in the workplace is a given — but far from a domination.

• Women, largely because they bear the children, still work less over their lifetimes than men.

• Women, because of their preponderance in "pink collar" jobs, still earn less than men.

• Women, because they work fewer years at lower-paying jobs, have less in savings and less income in retirement.

• Women continue to be underrepresented in business power structure. The Catalyst organization says that 15.4 percent of Fortune500 corporate officers are women; 14.8 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are held by women; and 6.7 percent of Fortune 500 top executive earners are women.

• Women, who head 40 percent of U.S. households, are more likely to live in poverty.

• Women are more than twice as likely as men to hold part-time jobs.

You can cite individual exceptions to those generalities. But in the aggregate they show that merely being in the workplace doesn't equate to empowerment or equality.

And, as The Economist noted in its cover story, the United States has been slow to create workplace policies that accommodate the realities of child- and elder-care giving that tend to fall on women.

So that's why saying, "We Did It!" may be premature.

But it's OK to recognize the gains for women. For many, the benefits of financial liberation are great.

And it should be noted that workplace gains are going hand in hand with education.

Women are more than half of the college student population. As women's education and professional work force participation grows, there may, within a generation, be a time where "We Did It!" truly deserves the exclamation point.

Diane Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist at The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at dstafford@kcstar.com.




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