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Damsel in Distress Seeks Better Policies, Bigger Paycheck, Prince Who Does Housework

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Stop five men and five women on the street outside an elementary school and ask them the shoe size of their youngest child, or the phone number of that child’s pediatrician. Odds are, the women will know both, the men neither. Much ink is being spilled lately to probe the findings of the University of Pennsylvania study on “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” which found that women today are unhappier than women were in the past – and also less happy than men are.  Our research on human development offers a few clues.

The last half century has seen a sea change in the way we organize work and family life. Today, most women work for pay, and most children live either in families where both parents work outside the home or in single-parent families headed by an adult (usually a woman) who is in the labor force. This is the “new normal.”  Yet expectations and institutions are stuck in the past, leaving major needs unmet and creating a set of often irreconcilable responsibilities that individuals and families struggle to fulfill.  The Sisyphean task of bridging the gulf between yesterday’s expectations and today’s realities falls chiefly on individual women.

And we wonder why women are less happy than men?

Over the last generation, women’s participation in the labor force has surged, particularly  among women with kids. In 1975, 30 percent of mothers with children under age three were in the workforce; now, 60 percent are, and for mothers with older children, rates top 70 percent.

Alongside this major transformation in the American family, technological change and globalization have contributed to major shifts in the labor market as well. A man with a high school diploma or less can barely support a family.  And the cost of the basics like housing and healthcare have risen steadily, new costs like childcare have been added, and wages for all but the top-earners have stayed flat or even gone down in real terms.

As Judith Warner argued last week in the Times, working is not actually a choice for most.  Families need two full-time workers to sustain the kind of middle-class life that was possible for single wage-earners just a few decades ago. And if most married women have no choice about work, unmarried women have even less.

How do these changes disproportionately affect women’s happiness?  Let us count the ways – or at least three of them:  earnings, expectations, and policy. 

1. More education, lower earnings.  Women today are graduating high school and college at higher rates than men, yet they still earn significantly less. So they have less income with which to buy happiness – or, better said, to stave off sources of unhappiness like stacks of unpaid bills or anxiety about old-age insolvency – than men do. Although women’s earnings have risen steadily since 1965, women still take home, on average, 78 cents for every dollar men earn. In our recent work, using Census Bureau data, we found that in Louisiana, women’s personal earnings from wages and salaries are, on average, nearly $14,000 less than men’s. And women’s smaller paychecks also lead to smaller retirement accounts, smaller pensions, and smaller Social Security checks later on.

The good news is that fields once closed to women are now open and laws that prohibit gender discrimination are helping.  But the earnings gap remains stubbornly persistent. About one-third of the gap stems from lost job experience during child rearing—women pay a high penalty for leaving the workforce to raise their children. Women also predominate in low-wage fields; for instance, women with low levels of education make up almost the entire labor force of child-care providers and home health aides.  These jobs pay less than occupations dominated by men with similarly low educational attainment levels, such as security guard or parking attendant. In addition, discrimination still plays a role. Even in jobs where women vastly outnumber men, such as teachers, men still make more. 

2. Less time, same expectations. In days gone by, women who were not in the paid labor force were nonetheless still working. They raised children, cooked meals, cleaned, and cared for sick or elderly relatives as well as helped to keep their local churches, charities, hospitals, and schools operating smoothly. They just didn’t get paid for it.  This caring labor kept families functioning and communities cohesive.

With most women now in the paid workforce, some of our expectations have changed; few families today keep house to the standards of our grandmothers. But many others remain. Been to a PTA meeting lately?  Seen any men there? Go to the waiting room of a gerentologist; most of those accompanying elderly parents to the doctor are daughters or daughters-in-law. All of these expectations are dependent upon a view of women’s time as endlessly elastic.

Time-use studies show that men are doing more at home than in the past, women less (though still more than men). There are certainly relationships in which the domestic load is carried equitably.  But the dynamic of women being in charge of the home and the well-being of all its inhabitants, while men help, is more than just a hackneyed complaint of privileged women – it is a real and fairly relentless phenomenon.  And it is one that makes the day-to-day experience of life less happy for all sorts of women.  Adding to this is the fact that women are still judged – and still judge themselves – by past standards when it comes to the domestic realm.  While women tend to compare themselves to their mothers, and too often find themselves wanting, men compare themselves to their fathers, a standard far easier to exceed.

3. Yesterday’s policies, today’s reality:  Our European peer countries have experienced a similar influx of women into the labor force as well as the same sorts of changes in marriage and childbearing patterns.  But they have dealt with it in a very different way – by offering high-quality, universal child care and mandatory policies to support mothers and fathers in their efforts to care for children as well as for ill or elderly family members, all without jeopardizing their ability to put food on the table.

How does the United States compare to other countries, many far less affluent than the U.S., in terms of helping working families balance their responsibilities? Not too well.

  • Maternity leave. One hundred sixty-nine countries guarantee paid maternity leave; 66 countries guarantee paid paternity leave. Ninety-three countries have fourteen or more paid weeks for mothers; 31 have fourteen paid weeks for men as well. The United States has no federally mandated paid childbearing leave for mothers or fathers.
  • Breastfeeding. Over 100 countries protect the right to breastfeed, with 73 offering paid breaks. This right is not guaranteed in the United States.
  • Vacation days. One hundred thirty-seven countries mandate annual paid leave. United States firms are not required to provide annual paid vacation.
  • Sick leave. One hundred forty-five countries have paid sick leave for short- or long-term illness, with 136 having at least one week annually, and 81 having twenty-six weeks or more or until recovery. Sick leave is offered in the United States through the Family and Medical Leave Act, but it is unpaid and does not cover all workers.

The world is hardly a worse place because few people iron sheets anymore.  But there is a strong argument to be made that the world is a worse place because people no longer eat home-cooked meals, which are typically more nutritious and less fattening than fast-food overstretched families increasingly rely on. And there is strong evidence that the needs of very young children for emotional attachment and appropriate stimulation are not best served in the types of childcare centers available to most families, or that the needs of the elderly infirm for safety, connection, and dignity are not best met by most nursing homes.

The answer is not for women to dig out the aprons and turn back the clock.  But nor is relying on each individual family to patch together its own crazy quilt of care. Society failed to value the unpaid labor that women did enough to find new ways to provide it.  If we had, women might be happier.

And bigger paychecks would help, too.

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis are co-authors of The Measure of America: American Human Development Report 2008-2009


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