Compared to their parents and grandparents, today’s families are experiencing a transformation in how they navigate work and caregiving responsibilities. This change has profound implications for what the government and business must do to respond to the needs of workers, particularly female workers, and their families.
The recently issued Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, a study by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress,* contributes to the ongoing national discussion about the current state of women in the United States. Among the findings is that although women have made strides in the workforce, more can and should be done to increase these achievements.
According to the report, although many women have always worked, women now, for the first time, make up half (49.9 percent as of July 2009) of all workers on U.S. payrolls. This is a dramatic change from just over a generation ago: in 1969, women made up only a third of the workforce (35.3 percent). Women are also increasingly taking on the dual roles of breadwinner and caregiver: nearly four in ten (39.3 percent) mothers are primary breadwinners, bringing home the majority of the family’s earnings, and an additional quarter (24 percent) of mothers are co-breadwinners, brining home at least 25 percent of the family’s earnings. The recession is accelerating these trends by leading to massive job losses, especially within male-dominated industries, with men accounting for three out of every four jobs lost (73.6 percent).
The report recognizes that while the composition of the national labor force has shifted and the typical family structure has changed, government and business institutions have failed to catch up with these realities. As a nation where both men and women generally work outside the home, our country’s workplace policies and social safety net must be updated to reflect the current realities of today’s workers. The report calls on policymakers to reform government incentives and requirements for employers to ensure equality for women workers and to support employees’ dual work and care responsibilities by addressing these issues:
- Equal Pay: Although women make up half of the labor force, they have not achieved equality in pay. The typical full-time, full-year female worker brings home 77 cents for every dollar earned by her male colleagues. And, for specific groups of women—including women of color and disabled workers—the wage gap is even larger.
- Equal Opportunity: Continued sex segregation in employment has prevented women from accessing higher paying jobs in nontraditional fields. Low-income women in particular need access to job training that will lead to career pathways with family-sustaining wages and benefits.
- Anti-Discrimination: Anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, must be reformed so that employers cannot disproportionately exclude women from workplace benefits.
- Family and Sick Leave and Social Security: Our social insurance system needs to be modernized to include paid family and sick leave as well as social security retirement benefits that take into account time spent out of the workforce caring for children and other relatives.
- Child and Elder Care: Workers need better support from the government with direct subsidies for child care, early education, and elder care to help them cope with their family and work responsibilities.
- Flexible and Predictable Schedules: More flexible and predictable work schedules are needed to help employees balance work and family more efficiently.
The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s Women’s Law and Policy Project and Community Investment Unit continue to work on issues of employment, education and skill development, and financial opportunities with the goal of promoting women’s economic progress and achieving gender equity in the workplace. Eliminating sex-based discrimination and establishing policies that recognize the everyday reality of workers’ caregiving responsibilities are necessary for ensuring the economic security of women and their families. Better training and educational opportunities, stricter enforcement of fair employment laws, and the creation of policy where fair employment protections do not exist are all imperative in empowering women to increase their earning power, develop economic self-sufficiency, and support their families’ well-being.
For more information about the Shriver Center work contact Wendy Pollack, director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Karen Harris, supervising attorney of the Community Investment Unit at email@example.com.
*Please note that the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is named in honor of Maria Shirver’s father, Sargent Shriver, but is not the author of the report.