Synopsis: The US once led the world in proportion of women in the workplace, but that number has declined the last 15 years. Experts explain the social, economic, and governmental factors that are leading women to quit their jobs–often unwillingly–and stay home.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Dr. Pamela Stone, Visiting Scholar, Stanford University Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Professor of Sociology, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author, Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home; Dr. Claudia Goldin, Professor of Economics, Harvard University

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Women and Work

Reed Pence: When America’s men went off to World War II, America’s women went to work, building the planes and tanks and trucks that won the war. But even when our fighting men came home and reclaimed their jobs, Rosie the Riveter never quite lost her taste for a paycheck. For 60 years, the percentage of American women in the workforce kept rising, to the point that by 1999, three quarters of women age 25 to 54 were working. For most of that time, the United States had one of the highest rates of women employed in the world. But since then, women have left the workforce in greater numbers. Today, less than 70 percent of women age 25 to 54 are employed.

Pamela Stone: Yes it’s fallen but it’s not fallen off a cliff. I think what it is, is it’s kind of leveled out after that long steady accent, and I think that’s what has people talking. I think we should also look at the context. The context is this is happening around one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression, if not the worst recession, so the larger economic picture certainly plays a role in what we’re seeing here.

Reed Pence: That’s Pamela Stone, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Clayman Institute for Fender Research and Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She’s also author of the book Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. She says that women’s workforce participation actually started dropping before the recession.

Pamela Stone: I think the big reason is we were used to a situation of ever and ever upward and onward for women’s labor force participation at a rate of increase that was probably not sustainable if you think about it. The other side of that is that we also know that women’s labor force participation, especially the work of mothers, is something that is kind of a key social indicator, a hot button topic. It is very closely watched, and I think people read a lot into it. But why should we care? I think we should care because we want to have a situation where we make full use of all of our human capital, men and women, and it looks like women, even though men’s labor force participation has also been hit, women’s is being hit a little bit harder. And, you know, thinking about how we can sort of utilize that talent is a real challenge.

Reed Pence: America has always been a bit ambivalent about working moms. For a long time, it seemed as if women with kids were criticized no matter whether they worked or not. But Claudia Goldin, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, says that’s changed.

Claudia Goldin: There was a time when we have some pretty good Gallup poll data from the 30s to the present with the question, “If a woman has a child below the age of six or something is it okay if she is in the labor force?” And the answers to that question changed enormously over time. So I don’t think that is a big issue. In fact many women who are, let us say, stay at home moms, complained that it’s just the reverse, that they feel that they’re stigmatized, that they’re not career women, that they don’t have a profession, that they don’t have a life outside of the home.

Reed Pence: Of course, it all depends on the age of the kids and the stage of life for mom. While overall workplace participation for women has declined, that’s not true for some groups. For example, Goldin says among women age 55+, more of them are working.

Claudia Goldin: One reason is that relative to decades ago work is better, work is nicer for most people, and for many people retirement is something that they feel is in their late 60s or their 70s, or maybe even older than that. So, the first thing is that the nature of work has changed. People are healthier, many women in these cohorts have returned to the labor force at some point, and they don’t want to give up, and some of them are divorced. For many groups it’s that they find identity in their work, they have invested enormously in their human capital, in their training, and they would like to use it.

Pamela Stone: College educated moms, among all groups of moms, actually have the highest rates of labor force participation, they’re working about 75 to 78 percent, so quite high. But for them the challenge is that the hours of those kinds of professional jobs are often times very long, and this kind of constant on-call, when you’re in the management ranks. So, for them, it’s the long hours, and often the long hours of their spouse, because we’re seeing a lot of dual career couples. At the lower end, it’s that workers can’t get enough hours to make work worth it. The wages haven’t budged in a long, long time, so the salaries are low, the earnings are low. Women have to always, (and men, but unfortunately it’s usually balanced against women’s earnings) women are balancing what they can earn against what it costs to work. And obviously when you’re in the low wage labor market the cost, the balance, that calculation doesn’t come out very favorably. It oftentimes costs you more to work then not to work.

Reed Pence: That’s the group that Stone says is really fueling the decline in women in the workplace. Younger, less educated women in lower wage jobs, who have fewer options and a tougher job market. Especially women with children, for whom daycare is just too expensive. Many of them turn to part time work, sometimes out of a desire for flexibility, but often out of necessity.

Pamela Stone: One of the things employers are doing for a variety of reasons is they’re creating more part time jobs, which are jobs that do not make it possible for workers to earn a living. So one of the things we’re seeing, along with the drop in labor force participation rates, is we’re seeing an increase in what’s called “involuntary part time,” in other words workers who would like to work more hours but cannot get more hours. So that’s a real problem too, is that employers are sometimes cutting up jobs into part time jobs, making jobs part time, that makes it much tougher for workers. One of the ways they try to solve that problem, is they go out and they get multiple jobs, so they’re not juggling just one job against the family, they’re juggling two jobs, sometimes three jobs against a family in order to make ends meet. Because part time work, besides being fewer hours, the hourly rate of pay at part time jobs is always lower than full time jobs, so there’s many penalties to part-time work.

Reed Pence: But employers have few reasons to make accommodations to either part time or full time workers when there are multiple people looking for every available job.

Pamela Stone: We have a workplace that’s very, very unfamily-friendly, so it’s very difficult for working moms, in the retail sector for example, to pull together childcare, to afford it, because of the recession and because the labor market is so tight, employers are really demanding. They’re making a lot of demands in terms of scheduling among low end workers like the large retail sector for example has gone to an almost “just in time” labor model, where workers know sometimes only a day or two in advance the shift they’re going to be working, the number of hours they’re going to be working. So at the low end of the labor market you see a lot of uncertainty and insecurity because the market is so tight. We are not making it easy for women especially to work and combine work with family. Whether we like it or not, women still are doing the vast share of childcare and housekeeping work still, even though working moms have been long established, they’re picking up a lot more. So, the responsibility for that second shift falls much more on women than it does on men.

Reed Pence: But even though the workplace gives time off grudgingly, many moms decide that they need to take more of it if their kids are going to grow up right. With no accommodation, it’s one more reason for women to drop out of the workforce completely.

Pamela Stone: We’re seeing a situation where the demands on parents are getting greater and greater and greater, and when you talk about parents, again we’re talking primarily about responsibilities that moms are going to take on. So, at the same time that we see the workplace becoming a bit more unfamily-friendly, and really not that accommodating of working parents, we also see the demands on parents really accelerating. Anybody who is a parent now knows this, I mean just the sheer security demands and the oversight that we have to exercise on kids today, and the testing demands that are emanating from schools, there are just so many more things that are making parents having to really spend even more time with their kids.

Reed Pence: But while America’s female job force numbers are declining, it’s not that way everywhere. Stone and Goldin contrast the United States with Europe, where job participation numbers are still climbing.

Pamela Stone: About 30 percent of the difference in our labor force participation rate, women’s labor force participation rate, and that of some counterpart European countries is due to the fact that they have these supports, these public policy supports, such as childcare, paid family leave, sick days, paid sick days, those kinds of things that make a huge difference in making it possible for families both to enter the labor force and keep working. We of course, in the United States, have a very laissez-faire approach, all of these arrangements around childcare for example are all private, very few public supports for any of those, and if they are, they’re very limited and they tend to be really means tested and attached and available only to very low-income workers. We don’t have paid family leave, for example. We’re one of the very few countries that doesn’t have paid family leave. All our counterpart European countries have it we don’t have it. We have family leave, unpaid family leave, the Family Medical Leave Act, but even that only covers about 40 to 50 percent of workers, there are so many loopholes and so many conditions that have to be met before workers are even eligible for that.

Reed Pence: And if someone is eligible, it doesn’t go nearly as far as it would in many other countries. Goldin says it’s unpaid leave. And you don’t get very much of it.

Claudia Goldin: We have a Family Medical Leave Act that guarantees that you can take 12 weeks, unpaid, 12 weeks, return to that employer and that employer has to have a comparable job for you, 12 weeks. Lets say that you have a kid, and you decide that 12 weeks is too short a period of time, for whatever reason, and you stay out for 14 weeks or 16 weeks, your employer does not have to rehire you. So, you have to then when you come back, lets say if you do, you have to go out and get a new job. So, that’s the issue. The issue isn’t so much the income the issue is that you’re not guaranteed your job.

Reed Pence: Business has always argued that mandatory benefits like long-term paid family leave and subsidized childcare would exact a huge cost on the economy. It could be ruinous for small firms, they say, to have to pay someone who’s on leave and not showing up for work. But Stone says numerous studies show that’s not what would happen. She says American companies now pay plenty when workers have to quit their jobs instead.

Pamela Stone: There’s a huge cost in turnover, it costs 80 to 100 thousand dollars to replace a professional worker for example, so to the extent that you’re churning workers, you’re incurring all kinds of costs that are really unproductive. So, there’s a lot of research that shows that for individual employers these kinds of policies make enormous sense, there’s a real business case for them because they don’t lose people. I’ve done some research on this across 21 countries actually with some colleagues, it turns out when you give workers some kind of control over their schedule for example, and even a modicum of control, they’re much more satisfied with their job, they report much lower levels of work-family conflict, and they have a much greater commitment to their employer. I mean they recognize the employers doing something for them, and helping to make it possible for them to combine work and family, they are incredible grateful. So, I’ve never quite understood why this business case, which I can tell you is out there and is being strongly made by many people who are advocates in this area. It just doesn’t seem to get through, but it is very clearly the case that it is costing employers money not to have these policies.

Reed Pence: Stone says California and New Jersey have mandated paid sick days, and so far it hasn’t bankrupted employers. But beyond the sheer economics, Goldin says there’s one other factor to consider, one that may be ultimately more important. How do children do as a result of flexible, family-friendly workplaces?

Claudia Goldin: One of the real benefits from paid leave and from protected leave is that more time is spent with infants, and more parental time with infants, and I mean not just mothers time but father’s time is just good for the infants, and good for the children that they will be and the citizens in the economy and the society that they will be.

Reed Pence: You can find out more about all of our guests on our website, You can always find our shows on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Reed Pence.

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