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A Dubious Equality for Women

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Posted on Feb 11, 2009

By Ellen Goodman

    I suppose this falls under the general heading “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

    There are a whole lot of folks who once looked forward to the day when women would become equal participants in the work force with men.

    They tracked the gradual increase of women. They debated why progress stalled over the past decade. They talked about work-family conflicts and the appeal of “opting out.”

    What they didn’t predict was that women might finally reach the goal of equality less because they scaled the heights than because men slipped downward. But here we are.

    In the winter of our economic discontent, women now hold more than 49 percent of jobs on the nation’s payrolls. If we cross the 50 percent line—hold the applause—it will be because men are losing their jobs even faster than women.


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    This dubious equality is in large part an ongoing tale of two economies. Men tend to work in manufacturing and construction, areas that were the hardest and first hit. Women tend to work in jobs such as health care and education that haven’t (yet) been as affected.

    In the past year, eight out of 10 pink slips went to men. The unemployment rate for women is bad enough at 6.2 percent, up 2 percentage points since 2007. But the unemployment rate for men is 7.6 percent, up three points. Add to that the fact that more men stop looking for jobs. You not only have a near-equal number of women in the work force, you have a lot of women in formerly two-earner families who’ve become the breadwinners.

    Breadwinners? Or should I say crustwinners. The other dubious part of this “equality” for families is that even if women fill half of the payroll jobs, they don’t bring home half the paychecks. They still earn only 78 cents for every male dollar. In two-worker households, husbands earn close to two-thirds of the income and usually hold the job with health insurance.

    So women’s work has been more stable but less profitable. And don’t forget that the recession is still on. Women may yet catch up (or catch down) with men’s job losses. They are especially vulnerable to cutbacks in state and local government, where they work in disproportionate numbers.

    They are also less likely to get those “shovel-ready” jobs manned by, um, men and initially favored by the Senate bill; jobs in the social infrastructure were favored by the House. Remember that when the president speaks about creating and saving 4 million jobs, a lot of the ones to be saved are occupied by women.

    Nevertheless, if women are achieving this dubious equality in the macro-economy, what’s happening in the micro-economy: the family?

    The optimists watching this social change always hoped that as women picked up paychecks out of the home, men would pick up the slack—and the socks—at home. Men, particularly young men, are doing more. Some are doing it all. But by and large, in the semi-traditional American household men have settled into a pattern. They do more than their fathers did and less than their wives do.

    In fact, the biggest strides toward equality in housework look a lot like the strides to equality in the work force. Men aren’t doing more, women are doing less. And while, to put it mildly, there’s been a lot of tension in families where women work the double shift, it’s also true that many women who earned less than their husbands made an internal calculation. Paid less in the work force, they did more of the housework to make an “equal” contribution. How will this hold now?

    The American Time Use Survey offers an interesting wrinkle on relationships in a down economy. When women lose their jobs, they spend twice as much time on child care and housework. When men lose their jobs, they spend the same time. Their hours are spent sleeping, watching TV and job searching.

    Every huge economic change like the one we are in has an unpredictable impact on society. This unplanned parity in the work force is just one example. But marriages are also facing an infrastructure change.

    We are about to see what happens to women who provide the family cushion ... or throw it. We are about to see if men are shovel-ready to take on more family and household labor. There is nothing in the stimulus package on this matter, but we may be jump-starting the languishing conversation about marriage as that 50-50 proposition.

    Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

    © 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, February 14, 2009 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

You should Check again Elianita, because right now men are required to register for selective service, women are not.

Yes there is no draft right now, but soon there will be.

Mainly because, we’re not in a recession, we’re in a total economic collapse, within 6 months there’s a good possibility we need military police in every major city.

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By elianita55, February 14, 2009 at 5:56 am Link to this comment

Rude Bellman, you bring up an interesting - albeit utterly flawed and misguided - argument.

The last time I checked, women were allowed to joined the US Armed Forces. Suggesting that they all be obliged to sign up to Selective Service is as ridiculous as suggesting that all American men should be obliged to.

Few of the women that support equality between the sexes believe that women are men’s physical equals. We all know this is not, and never will be, the case. Those that occasionally attempt to test the idea (the Williams sisters asking to join the men’s tennis circuit comes to mind), are quickly reminded of reality.

Women demand social and political empowerment, not the ability to stand up to men as regards physical strength. They demand an end to discrimination in the public sphere. They demand to be respected and treated as men’s equals in terms of intellectual capacity and leadership and management skills.

Not in terms of muscle capacity.

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By The Rude Bellman, February 13, 2009 at 1:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This whole equality thing is a farce.  Men and women are not equal; they are different. They can work together, as thousands of years of marriage have shown but please quit expecting them to be the same.  It’s insulting.

“Shovel-ready” men have long picked up kitchen utensils, mops and other household tools when necessary and many would enjoy staying home with the kids if given the chance.  Men the world over do quite well as cooking, cleaning and creating a nice home environment.  The one thing they don’t do is complain about what someone else isn’t doing, like women do.  Incessantly.

Here’s an idea I’d like to propose.  If women are serious about equality, really serious, then they need to start a crusade to make sure that every girl in this country, when she turns eighteen, is required to sign up for Selective Service.  They need to fight for a woman’s right to be on the front line in combat defending their country and they need to make sure that if a draft is ever instituted that an equal number of women are selected to go to war.  Until women do that I have a hard time believing what they really want is equality.

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G.Anderson's avatar

By G.Anderson, February 12, 2009 at 2:23 pm Link to this comment

Marriage is not about numbers it’s about intangibles, that cannot be measured.

Those that have turned marriage into a battle ground of poltics are only ensuring that their form of marriage, in which the state occupies the family ground, much as it does enemy territory in time of war, to enforce it’s own social views, is finished.

Those sorts of marriages in which the state has switched from enforcing the marrige contract, to instead enforcing and exploiting divorce have contributed only to the crushing emotional and financial poverty that men and women now face in this country.

On the other hand the marriage contract as a part of and extention of a persons religion is alive and well, and gaining ground against non relgious unions.

Ideologies have a way of giving way to the necessities of life, and need. Love always finds a way to overcome ideology, in the end.

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