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.
This article appears in the March 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.