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.

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)globe.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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