ASSUMPTIONS FREEZE WOMEN FROM JOB MARKET
by Jo Freeman
in Democratic Left, June 1979, pp. 3-4, This article was adapted
from a speech given at the Conference on Women and the Economy, sponsored
by the Conference on Alternative State and Local Public Policies held
in Cleveland, Ohio, May 1978.
concepts about family structure and the way in which the designated
roles of women and men interact with the economy underlie government
economic policies. Because economists assume that all individuals
reside in stable two-adult families, and the 1960s and early 1970s
brought a rise in real income, they find the rapidly rising rate of
women in the labor force both unexpected and inexplicable.
have been moving into the work force steadily since World War II.
During the last few years, women workers have increased so rapidly
that economic projections have not been able to keep up. While our
current economic forecast anticipates that 48.5 percent of all women
over 16 will be in the labor force in 1980, by 1978 over 50 percent
of all such women were employed or looking for work.
Since economists cannot explain this within a traditional economic
framework, they tend to associate it with other puzzling phenomena,
in particular, why we have simultaneous high unemployment and high
inflation (something impossible under the traditional view that there
is a cyclical trade-off between unemployment and inflation -- with
one high when the other is low, and vice versa.)
economists conclude that the increase in women's participation in
the labor force, particularly among married women, can at least partially
account for both higher inflation and unemployment. They argue that
married women who "don't really have to work" tell government
interviewers that they are looking for jobs when they are actually
quite picky about what work they will accept.
argue that because women do not provide the major economic support
for the family, a particular unemployment rate does not indicate the
same degree of national hardship as it has done in the past. Furthermore,
married women, who don't really "have 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 often blamed for inflation than for unemployment, but
some economists note that married women's contributions to family
incomes increase the number of dollars families can spend. More dollars
without a concomitant increase in productivity is attributed as a
major cause of inflation.
employment 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 lowering unemployment,
women will continue to carry a disproportionate share of America's
Administration is emphasizing inflation for two reasons: one, despite
his populist campaign rhetoric, Carter is more in tune with the needs
of business than of labor -- and business worries about inflation;
and two, politically, everyone feels the pinch of inflation, but the
only ones affected by unemployment are the unemployed.
even the cries of the jobless are being rationalized away by attributing
most unemployment to women. Thus, 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, the
two-adult family with 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 the single-parent family is also growing by
leaps and bounds.
36 percent of all minority families and 11.5 percent of all white
families are headed solely by women. Because women's unemployment
rates are higher and their incomes lower than men's, 51 percent of
families headed solely by minority women and 24 percent of equivalent
white families were below the poverty level in 1977. Only 5 percent
of the families with a white man, and 13.5 percent of those with a
minority man, were below the poverty line.
the percentage of all families in poverty has been declining in the
last two decades, most of that decline has been among families with
men in them. More and more, poverty is becoming a female problem.
And it is a female problem because the programs designed to alleviate
poverty mainly help men.
public employment programs have trained women for traditional, low
paying jobs. They have encouraged men to gain employment experience
and discouraged women from leaving the home. Later, if the family
breaks up, it is the woman who has little or no experience to help
her in job-hunting.
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.
is needed is an entire rethinking 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 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 that all adults have responsibility for the support
of themselves and their children, regardless of their individual living
means that all are entitled to policies which facilitate carrying
out this responsibility without regard to sex, marital status, 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 should be
major priority should be programs that foster job integration by
sex and race to alleviate the overcrowding by women and minorities
into a few occupations. Large-scale programs must prepare and place
women in high-paying skilled jobs through subsidized adult vocational
education, on-the-job training, upgrading within firms during layoffs
without loss of unemployment benefits, and massive efforts 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.
Further research should be done on the possible implementation of
the concept of equal pay for work of equal value in job evaluation
and employers should be encouraged to distribute the cost of an
economic downturn equitably among their workers by ending traditional
layoff policies which result in disproportionate dismissals of women
and minorities and developing programs of work sharing.
care must become 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.
provide more options for all workers, the development of alternative
work schedules including part-time and flexitime should be encouraged
without loss of seniority or benefits.
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, usually 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 that cater to the
public to lengthen the hours and days they are open. Such policies
would also increase jobs.
need proposals like these if they are to achieve their right to
equal participation in the labor force. But as long as women are
viewed as temporary workers, or secondary contributors to family
income and national growth, as long as women remain tokens in policy
making, they will not be equal.