At 19 years old, Karina Martinez has good reason to believe that her life will prove less of a struggle than her mother’s has been. Her mother, Sylvia, now 47, who works as a housecleaner in Oakland, Calif., labored seven days a week, 11 hours a day, to raise Karina and her 8-year-old sister without a husband’s help. But the Great Recession brought harder times: As Sylvia’s clients cut back, her weekly earnings tumbled from a pre-slump peak of $1,000 to $300 to $400. She and her daughters have had to spend nights in a shelter when she’s been unable to pay their $850 rent.
Karina’s prospects look rosier. She is enrolled in Laney College, a community college in Oakland, and hopes to transfer to a four-year university. Her goal is to attend graduate school and become a psychologist. She wants to support herself by herself, even if she doesn’t marry—which she may not do. Her father was abusive, and Karina implored her mother five years ago to leave him, which she did. Her father, intermittently employed as a mechanic, rarely contributes anymore to the family’s support. “Not all men are the same,” Karina said, “but after seeing the experience that my mom had with my dad …”
Forty years after women began entering the labor market in full force, it’s less about a war between the sexes and more about a polarized landscape in which low-income men are falling behind and education is helping women advance—though only so far.
For Karina Martinez, college is the surest way out of poverty. She’s among the legions of women who are trying to better their lives through higher education. In the United States, women earned 62 percent of associate degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of all master’s degrees, and half of Ph.D.s awarded in the 2008-09 academic year. Psychology, in particularly, is attractive to women, who commonly account for 80 percent of undergraduate psychology majors and earn 76 percent of the field’s doctorates.
Some women have always worked outside the home, especially women of color, such as Karina Martinez’s mother and others who work in other people’s homes. But since the 1970s, working women have increased their ranks and the types of jobs they hold; they are now more likely to work after marriage and motherhood. In 1975, half of all mothers with children under 18 were in the workforce, according to University of California (Berkeley) sociologist Arlie Hochschild; by 2009, the proportion had risen to nearly three-fourths. Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has noted that the mother is the primary breadwinner in two-fifths of American families; in a fifth of all families, a single mother is the sole breadwinner.
The gender gap in pay is no longer narrowing, because “we did the easy stuff first.”
If it looks like women’s prospects are rising, relative to the men, it’s not only because women are moving ahead but also because the outlook has dimmed for many men, especially those who have only a high school education. The financial return from a college education “is as high as it’s ever been,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor. “There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people who don’t have some postsecondary education. It doesn’t have to be a college degree—you just have to invest in a set of skills, like being a plumber or an electrician.”
Women would seem to have the edge, but consider this: Although economists say that the job growth in coming decades will concentrate in fields that women dominate, the sectors that are surging—health care and service as well as education—often don’t pay all that well. If Karina Martinez fulfills her dream of becoming a psychologist, for example, she’ll be entering a relatively low-paying field. Indeed, as both the compensation and social status of psychology have sagged, women have come to dominate the field, and men have gone elsewhere.
In every field of work and at every level of education, women are still paid less than men. The wage gap is the widest for Latinas, who earn 60 cents for every dollar a white man makes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even among maids and housekeepers, women earn only 83 percent as much as the few men in the field.
That’s the macro view; now consider the micro. When it takes two incomes to assure a family’s middle-class comfort, women’s wages are more crucial than ever. But women still put in the most hours in caring for children and the home. More and more, employers are being asked not only to pay a living wage but also to provide a workplace environment that adapts to family life. Now, as ever, the gender wars extend from the battleground of the workplace and into the home.
THOSE POOR, POOR MEN
“Is there an equivalent to Title IX for men?” Time magazine quipped in 2010, referring to the law that outlaws sex discrimination in any federally subsidized educational activity. (The answer is yes: Title IX, which is gender-neutral.) The occasion for the question was a widely circulated study, conducted by strategy consultancy Reach Advisors, that found young women were outearning men—by 8 percent—in 147 of the nation’s 150 biggest cities in 2008.
Maybe it’s an eagerness for a fresh narrative after decades of news about gender inequality and the gap in wages that explains such triumphalism about women’s rising success in the job market. The study’s findings, however, applied only to unmarried and childless urban women, who tend to earn more than their male peers at the outset because they’re significantly likelier to have finished college. In 1979, the average college graduate made an hourly wage roughly 50 percent higher than that of a high school graduate—and by 2009, nearly twice as much.
What’s happening, it seems, isn’t so much that women are vaulting ahead than that less-educated men are falling behind. The days are pretty much gone when a man with a high school degree could expect to support a family by, say, working in a factory at a union wage. Roughly half of the narrowing of the wage gap starting in the 1980s was due to men’s declining real wages, according to the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Since then, men’s average wages have stagnated more than women’s (in part because women’s wages were lower to start with). For men who lack a college degree, the cratering of economic opportunity is a problem with no end in sight.
Indeed, the main reason that families have seen any growth in income in recent decades is that women went to work. According to economist Boushey, families with dual earners saw their inflation-adjusted incomes rise by 37 percent from 1973 to 2006—not much more than the almost 26 percent growth for women supporting a family on their own. “The reality is that we’ve spent decades decimating the middle class and, in many ways, hollowing out opportunities for men without college degrees,” Boushey said. “And then, 40 years later, people are scratching their heads [saying], ‘I don’t understand why those men whose dads earned $30 an hour aren’t happy working for $12 an hour. Why don’t they just get off their butts and get a job?’ ”
It used to be women who had to marry for financial security; now it’s men who stand to gain the most. According to MIT’s Autor, male high school dropouts were less likely to be married than men who had at least started college—by 17 percent among whites and 20 percent among blacks. “Falling male earnings and rising male joblessness and incarceration make those guys not worth marrying,” he said. “It’s just another mouth to feed.” (See First Comes Love, Then Comes … Well, It Depends on Your Schooling.)
Men’s sagging fortunes were compounded at the peak of the recession, when headlines warned of a “mancession,” in which men in hard-hit sectors such as construction were losing while higher-earning women gained. Recessions often narrow the gender gap in pay, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found, because volatile bonus and overtime payments make up a greater proportion of men’s wages. But the gender difference was small: Women’s median real earnings didn’t rise at all during 2010, while men’s pay sank by almost 1 percent. And the effect turned out to be temporary. Male-dominated fields have recovered more quickly, while cutbacks in state and local government payrolls have put women disproportionately out of work.
For at least a few decades more, women at every level of education and income can look forward to earning less than men in comparable jobs. If the gender gap in pay keeps shrinking by the same rate as it has since 1960, the women’s research institute has calculated, it wouldn’t disappear until 2056. Autor, however, is more optimistic that women will keep gaining on men. “Women will be earning more, on average, than men in the U.S. labor market,” he predicted, “sometime in the next 20 years.”
ON THE LADDER, STALLED
Some of the persistent discrepancies in pay can be attributed to choices that women make—Karina Martinez’s decision, for instance, to pursue psychology. “Even though the fastest growing careers are in traditionally female-dominated fields such as health care, the highest-paying careers remain in male-dominated fields, including engineering, technology, and other science-related industries and services—all fields in which women still lag very far behind men in educational degrees,” University of California (Berkeley) law professor Mary Ann Mason, an expert in family economics, has noted. (See Women’s Successes in School … Bleed Away in Their Paychecks.)
Women (and men) who majored in “male-dominated” subjects outearn those who chose “female-dominated” or “mixed-gender” majors, a 2007 study by the American Association of University Women found. Home-health aides, who are mainly women, will see their ranks grow by half by 2018, but they’re paid a median salary of just $20,460. Elementary school teachers need a bachelor’s degree or more, but earn median wages of only $49,330. The fastest-growing fields that pay generously usually require “male” majors—such as biomedical engineering ($77,400 median salary, projected job growth of 72 percent by 2018) and network-systems and data-communication analysis ($71,100, 53 percent).
There’s little reason to think that these disparities will change anytime soon. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a plunge in the sex-segregation of the civilian labor force started in 1972, as women entered previously male-dominated fields, but has mostly stalled since 1996. Among the youngest workers, recent data suggest, the trend toward integration by gender has actually reversed. Even choosing a “male” major often isn’t enough for women to earn equal pay. Given the same education, grades, and background, the group’s analysis concluded, a man will earn 5 percent more in the first year after graduation. And then the gap widens—a decade later, to 12 percent. Over 40 years, the disparity amounts to $434,000, according to a Center for American Progress study.
Nearer the top of the corporate ladder, women seem stuck. Even in a well-paying field such as banking and finance, women accounted for half of all managers in 2009 but only a quarter of those who earned at least $100,000 a year, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found. The tiny proportion of women serving as CEOs of big businesses—3.6 percent of the Fortune 500 and Fortune 1,000—has barely budged. (See When Women Rule.) In executive offices and on corporate boards, women “are no further along” than they were six years ago, according to Catalyst, an international organization that advocates for women in business.
The stall in women’s careers “begins to hit when they are in middle management, trying to get to the top,” said economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Talent Innovation based in New York City. “Once you hit 38, you see it.”
Women’s breaks from the workforce to bear children, economists say, don’t fully account for the gap in pay. Another explanation that’s been offered in recent years is that women don’t ask to get ahead—that the way they’ve been socialized inhibits them from showing the aggression needed to advance. But a study that Catalyst issued last fall found otherwise. Comparing “high-potential women” with their male counterparts, it found that women were, in fact, asking, but that their strategies “had little bearing” on how quickly they advanced to positions of leadership. Conversely, the men who tried hardest to advance succeeded in doing so, compared with less-ambitious men. For business-school graduates, the gap in pay between men and women started at $4,600 for the first year out of school and grew to $31,258 by mid-career. Women who stayed at the same company earned $53,472 less than those who changed jobs at least twice by mid-career; among men, the difference was $13,743. Cata-lyst’s conclusion: Men are paid for their potential; women, for their proven performance.
“Women are not seen as leaders, they’re not groomed for it, and they’re not chosen, in spite of their extraordinary track record, qualifications, and experience,” Hewlett said.
Educational prowess takes women only so far. “Every darn decade, we get the same life-cycle earnings picture,” said Deborah Figart, director of the New Jersey-based Stockton Center for Economic and Financial Literacy. The penalty for marriage and motherhood in addition to the fact that women take lower-paying jobs within an organization, she said, damages the opportunities they’re afforded over their careers.
Why is the gender gap in pay no longer narrowing? As women expanded into the workforce, Figart explained, “We did the easy stuff first.” Women went to college, had blatant discrimination declared illegal, and started to address the tensions between family and work. Progress will get only harder from here.
BALANCING WORK AND LIFE
When companies started to offer flexible work programs to employees in the 1980s, they surely didn’t have Ian Campbell in mind. Unlike the earlier generation of working mothers who added “work-life balance” to the economic lexicon, Campbell is a 30-year-old man without a spouse or children. But when he graduates this spring from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and rejoins the major consulting firm that paid his way through, he’ll take advantage of what’s still known there as the Women’s Initiative—working 80 percent of the time for 80 percent of the pay.
“I have worked 80 hours in a week, but I don’t think I could physically or mentally sustain it in the long term,” he said. “Probably down the line, I won’t care if I had a huge bonus at [age] 30, but I will care if I built a relationship with someone.”
If Campbell does have children, he expects to consider staying home with them, like his mother did in raising him and his two siblings while his father worked long hours as a physician in Nashville. He doesn’t assume that the mother of his children would stay home. In his social circle, his friends pretty much assume that both partners will go to work. “People find work rewarding,” Campbell said. Still, many of his Wharton buddies tell him they’re envious of his plan to find balance, even if it comes at the expense of long-term financial gain.
In these days of telecommuting and unsettled gender roles, the connections between office and home keep getting more tangled. “Women’s relative position has changed,” Boston University economist Claudia Olivetti pointed out, “but there is this interaction between the way in which households are organized and specialized and what’s going on in the labor market.” For example, if two lawyers marry and they want to have children, she explained, the usual—and probably rational—assumption is that the woman will take more time off, despite the professional penalties, because the man is more likely to advance and become a partner. This creates both the incentive and the financial capability for the woman to scale back.
Even if men are, well, evolving, achieving a balance between work and family has remained harder for women. They face a profoundly different calculation in finding a comfortable role in the economy than men do. This entails more than the physical demands of childbearing. Even in families where both parents work outside the home, women continue to take on most of the domestic chores. Men have more than doubled the hours they devote to child and household care since 1965, but it amounts to barely half as much time as mothers spend, according to demographer Suzanne Bianchi. The rare stay-at-home dads still spend less time on average on domestic tasks and child care, she said, than the working mothers they live with.
Some progress, however, is apparent. In 1989, sociologist Hochschild found that working mothers put in an extra four weeks a year in domestic duties—The Second Shift, as she titled her book—compared with their husbands. More recent data show a difference in at-home work of two weeks a year. A quarter-century “didn’t rid women of an extra shift,” Hochschild reflected, “but it did cut the length of it in half.”
For years, it’s been professionals and executives in the forefront of the discussion about trying to achieve a happy and productive balance between family and work. As Ian Campbell knows, this doesn’t appeal only to women. In a 2005 survey of Fortune 500 companies, 84 percent of male executives said they wanted “job options that let them realize their professional aspirations while having more time for things outside work”; more than half said they’d take less money to achieve it. “Men now report more work-family conflict than women,” said historian Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. “That shows that many of them are looking to develop a more-integrated identity, not just as workers but as partners and family members.”
A desire for flexibility in balancing family and work cuts across not only gender but also socioeconomic lines. A 2004 study by Boston College’s Center for Work and Family identified several programs by major companies that hope to reduce turnover among lower-wage employees. A survey at the Bank of America suggested that employees who received a company subsidy for child-care expenses were twice as likely to stay. Kraft Foods has started to offer its manufacturing workers the chance to swap shifts, share jobs, and take single-day vacations.
Or think of Karina Martinez’s mother. Sylvia stopped working 80-hour weeks cleaning houses after Karina and her sister protested that they never saw her; she started to take weekends off for family time and struggled some more financially. Now, both mother and daughter are active with Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a women’s group that is pushing for a domestic workers bill of rights in California assuring the right to overtime pay, to worker’s compensation, to sleep uninterruptedly, and to cook one’s own food. Similar legislation that passed in New York in 2010 gave housekeepers, nannies, and home-health aides some of the labor protections that other workers receive.
Of course, when unemployment is high and the economic future looks so uncertain, workers of either gender wield only so much clout. “If we don’t create jobs,” said Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “I don’t care if you’re male, female, or transgender—we’re going to continue to have an enormous challenge” in improving workers’ lives.
It isn’t a coincidence that the countries where women are advancing the fastest are those with rapid economic growth. The Center for Talent Innovation’s Hewlett pointed out that in India and Brazil, “women are leapfrogging men,” even in the upper reaches of the corporate world. “It’s easier to absorb people up top, because you’re expanding,” she noted. And the desire for talent has resulted in aggressive policies—say, docking the bonuses of managers who fail to attract and promote capable women.
In the United States, the structure of employment hasn’t caught up yet to the changes in social roles—and vice versa. Less-educated men have fewer chances to get ahead and, so far, little inclination to adapt to the traditionally “female” trades where jobs are growing. Meanwhile, women’s growing economic responsibilities bump up against the desires or expectations at home. “Things that people agree are wonderful in the abstract—that women and men have more choices and options—run into these structural barriers,” historian Coontz said, in how “we organize our work, economic inequality, and the increasing speed-up of life.”
No wonder there’s some nostalgia for the simpler days of yore, even if they weren’t so simple for women who depended economically on men. “I think some people respond to this by saying … maybe we’ve gone too far at the gender level,” Coontz said, rather than by saying, “we have to change work policies and social practices.” But whatever they say, there’s no turning back.
The author is a staff writer at Salon.com.
This article appears in the March 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.