Employment: Toward Economic Equality For Women
by Jo Freeman
Published in Women in the Economy: Policies and Strategies for Change.
Report of a conference held in Cleveland, Ohio, May 12-13, 1978, ed. by
Ann Beaudry and Kim Yonkers. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies,
the last nine months I have been trying to learn how economists think.
This is a necessary task because, next to lawyers, they are the single
most influential group in government. Yet the concepts they use are based
not only on certain assumptions about the economy, but also on ones about
family structure and the way in which the designated roles of women and
men interact with the economy.
Because economists assume that all individuals reside in stable two-adult
families, and the sixties and early seventies brought a rise in real income,
they find the rapidly rising rate of female labor force participation
both unexpected and inexplicable. Women have been moving into the labor
force steadily since WWII. Their surge into the economy during the last
few years has been so great that economic projections literally have not
been able to keep up with it. Our current economic forecast anticipates
that 48.5% of all women over 16 will be in the labor force in 1980. However,
1977 already showed that 48.9% of all such women were employed or looking
this phenomenon cannot be explained within a traditional economic framework,
there is a strong tendency to associate it with other puzzling phenomena
-- in particular, why we have a high unemployment rate and a simultaneous
high inflation rate, something supposedly impossible under the traditional
view that there is a cyclical tradeoff between unemployment and inflation
-- with one high when the other is low, and vice versa.
economists conclude that the increase in women's labor force participation,
which is disproportionately high among married women, can at least partially
account for both higher inflation and unemployment. Supposedly this affects
the unemployment rates since married women who don't really need to
work tell government interviewers that they are looking for jobs when
they are quite picky about what work they will accept. (One doesn't actually
have to be employed to be counted in the labor force.) Because women are
not assumed to provide major economic support for the family, a particular
unemployment rate does not indicate the same degree of national hardship
as it has in the past. Furthermore, married women who don't really need
to work, are even accused of taking jobs away from married men, who do,
making an additional contribution to the unemployment rate.
women are less likely to be blamed for inflation than for unemployment,
but some economists note that married women's contribution to family income
increases the amount of dollars a particular family has to spend. More
dollars without a concomitant increase in productivity is attributed as
a major cause of inflation. Rebuttals to these economic conclusions are
varied; suffice it to say that the people who make them are generally
not the ones to whom policy-makers go for advice.
I don't need to tell you that a full employment policy is a fundamental
part of improving women's economic situation. But as long as this Administration
sees inflation as the number one economic problem, and accepts the traditional
economic notion that curbing inflation requires policies contradictory
to curbing unemployment, women will continue to carry a disproportionate
share of America's economic woes.
Administration is putting its emphasis on curbing inflation and not unemployment
for two reasons: (1) despite his populist campaign rhetoric, Carter is
more in tune with the needs of business than labor -- and business' primary
economic concern has always been inflation; (2) politically, as it has
often been expressed, everyone feels the pain of inflation but the only
ones affected by unemployment are the unemployed. Now even the cries of
the jobless are being rationalized away by attributing most unemployment
to women. Therefore, the Administration economists are saying that the
consequences of continued unemployment will not be too severe.
are wrong. They are wrong because they have simply not understood that
the principal economic unit is no longer, if it ever was, a two-adult
family with only one primary wage earner. Not only is the two-earner family
becoming the norm for families with more than one adult, but the single
person and single parent family is also growing by leaps and bounds.
36% of all minority families and 11.5% of all white families are headed
solely by women. Because women's unemployment rates are higher and their
incomes are lower than men's, 51% of families headed solely by minority
women and 24% of equivalent white families were below the poverty level
in 1977. Only 4.8% of the families with a white man in them lived below
the poverty line.
the percentage of all families in poverty has been declining in the last
two decades, the rate of decline of female-based families has been a fraction
of those with adult men in them. More and more, poverty is becoming a
female problem. It is becoming a female problem because the programs to
eliminate poverty disproportionately help men.
view that women do not have a right to work was perpetuated in President
Carter's proposed welfare plan which provided only one public service
job per family and specified that the person to get that job must be the
one who worked the most hours or earned the most money in the preceding
six months. Because of this preference for men, the Department of Labor
estimated that men would get 50% of the provided jobs even though they
are only 9% of the adults on welfare. As long as male preference is institutionalized,
women will continue to dominate the ranks of the impoverished and the
unemployed. And it will remain institutionalized until there is a concerted
approach to improve the economic situation of women.
concerted approach requires more than a full employment bill. Even if
achieved it would not ensure that women would share equitably in the jobs
to be created. What is needed to bring women's employment situation to
a par with men is not merely more government programs, but an entire reconceptualization
by policy-makers of women's role in the labor force. The current view
of equal employment opportunity is that women who are like men should
be treated equally with men. Instead, what we need is a recognition of
women's right to equal labor force participation, a recognition that does
not view economic dependency on men as the ultimate fallback position
-- in fact the preferred fallback position. We need to recognize the fact
that all adults have responsibility for the support of themselves and
their children, regardless of their individual living situation. This
means that all are entitled to policies which will facilitate carrying
out this responsibility without regard to sex, marital or parental status.
From this perspective, programs and services that appear to be luxuries
under the traditional view become necessities. It is from this perspective
that the following proposals need to be developed:
1. A major priority should be programs which foster job integration by
sex and race in order to alleviate the overcrowding by women and minorities
into a few occupations. These should include large scale programs to prepare
and place women in high-paying skilled jobs. This can be done through
the use of subsidized adult vocational education and on-the-job training,
upgrading within firms during lay-offs without loss of unemployment benefits
and massive efforts by CETA, WIN and the Employment Service to place women
in non-traditional jobs. In addition, government should put teeth into
affirmative action requirements for women and minorities, first by making
a viable affirmative action program a prerequisite for bidding on government
contracts (not merely a paperwork requirement after a contract has been
secured) and second, by creating more varied sanctions for non-compliance
than contract denials.
2. The concept of equal pay for work of equal value should be introduced
and implemented in job evaluation systems -- beginning with the Civil
3. Unions and employers should be encouraged to distribute the cost of
an economic downturn equitably among their workers by ending traditional
lay-off policies which result in disproportionate dismissals of women
and minorities and developing programs of "work-sharing."
4. Childcare must be seen as a public responsibility, just as necessary
as the provision of schools, police and fire services. Parents who choose
to leave the labor force for short periods to bear and care for young
children should have their jobs held for them just as they would be if
they were drafted to fight a war.
5. In order to provide more options for all workers, the development of
alternative work schedules, including part-time and flexi-time, should
be encouraged without loss of seniority or benefits.
6. Because the standard work week coincides with the standard hours that
businesses and agencies are open it is difficult to be a full-time worker
and to maintain one's private life without the assistance of another adult
in the family, generally a wife, who does not work these hours. In order
for women to have the opportunity to maximize their earnings, the government
should encourage establishments which cater to the public to lengthen
the hours and days they are open. Such policies would also increase jobs.
like these are needed to achieve women's right to equal labor force participation.
They will not be achieved as long as women are viewed as temporary workers
or secondary contributors to family income and national growth. Nor will
progress be made as long as women are relegated to token participation
in policy making.