At the start of this year while en route for my big move to Sao Paulo, I picked up the latest issue of The Economist. How could I not when the cover story was "We Did It - What Happens When Women are Over Half the Workforce". The article was about the fact that by mid-year 2010, "women will cross the 50% threshold and become the majority of the American workforce".* My first reaction was, 'wow, what an accomplishment', but then as I got deeper into the article my thoughts started to change.
When we think about how far women have come, there's no doubt that we have been able to crack the glass ceiling in many ways with regards to career and our place in society. However as the article states, "women are still under-represented at the top of companies", they are still "paid significantly less than men on average", and that "juggling work and child-rearing is difficult."* So then what have we accomplished? And if we were to survey women across the country and ask them about their careers, I think we would get mixed reactions from women that have no choice, but to work due to their financial situation. Or some may feel the pressure that being a modern woman is trying to have it all (wife, mother, career-woman, etc). And in the end who suffers from this? Well children do, "the biggest losers are poor children - particularly in places like America and Britain that have combined high levels of female participation in the labor force with a reluctance to spend public money on child care".
I believe that it should be possible for women to have it all, but our society makes it extremely difficult for us to attain that. "Motherhood, not sexism, is the issue: in America, childless women earn almost as much as men, but mothers earn significantly less. And those mothers' relative poverty also disadvantages their children".* So then the new challenge are the social consequences with regards to women dominating half the workforce.
I would say the first issue is maternity leave. "Out of 168 nations in a Harvard University study last year, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave, leaving the United States in the company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland".* This is due to the US allowing only 12 weeks unpaid leave, whereas in countries such as Canada, they receive 12 months (sometimes 14 months) paid maternity leave. In Sweden, they receive 16 months maternity leave with 80% pay.
The second issue is childcare. The US only spends "0.5% of its GDP on public support for child care compared with 1.3% in France and 2.7% in Denmark".* We don't really have any comprehensive after-school care, US schools shut down for two months in the summer, so where does this leave us? Stressed out trying to juggle family and work.
Another issue is flexible working. "More than 90% of companies in Germany and Sweden allow for flexible working".* These companies rather than judging their staff on weekly hours, they are judged annually. They essentially work nine days every two weeks and can come in early or work late. So, this really takes the pressure off so that you can arrange your schedule accordingly for your children.
There is no reason why women should not get support from society, the government, and companies so that they can live their lives, be wives, mothers, and career-women without being over-the-top stressed out or having to make a choice between motherhood and careers. Being in the position of making up 50% of the workforce is a great accomplishment, but until we deal with the social issues, it's just another statistic.
-The Economist, January 2nd, 2010 "We Did It - What Happens When Women are Over Half the Workforce"
-USAtoday.com, July 26th, 2005 "U.S. stands apart from other nations on maternity leave"