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Lisa Seftel


NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As Lisa Seftel was planning for her first child, she thought she had struck a good deal with her boss.

After the baby came, she’d work three days managing a family-owned consultancy’s Manhattan headquarters and two days at home in a New York suburb. This would give her full benefits and let her share child care with her husband. Seftel would continue to work on the most important projects at the company.

But in 2003 she discovered the “dark side” of the U.S. workplace, she said. After the baby was born, her boss reneged, saying she could either work five days a week in the office or three days at home.

“Like so many women, I was pushed out and became a full-time mother,” said Seftel. “I’m now working as a Mary Kay representative, a position that enables me to meet my financial and caregiving responsibilities, which was impossible in the corporate world.”

The choices her boss offered would have decimated either her earnings or her work-life balance, Seftel said. “If I worked five days, I would have had to pay thousands of dollars for child care, and been relegated to an insignificant role in my daughter’s early life. If I worked three days, our family would have had no health insurance; my husband’s employer didn’t provide it and we couldn’t afford a family policy. My career would have never recovered because I would have been deprived of the experiences necessary to acquire new skills.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 60 percent of married mothers are now in the work force, 4 percentage points lower than in 1997. The rate of married mothers of infants who work fell 6 percentage points to 53 percent.

With mothers representing about two-thirds of adult women those figures help explain why the United States is one of only two industrialized countries–the other is Japan–out of 23 where women’s work force participation rate fell between 1994 and 2006, according to data from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Reversal of Trend

From the 1950s through the 1990s the percentage of U.S. women in the paid work force steadily increased. But that trend has begun to reverse and today 3.3 million fewer women are working than would be if the trend had continued.

While a spate of news reports has explained the trend as women preferring to stay home or “opting out,” an array of women’s policy groups disagree. The real explanation, they contend, is a workplace that fails women on some basic interlocking fronts: inflexible scheduling requirements, job discrimination, lack of child care, lack of parental leave, lack of sick leave.

Researchers for the San Francisco-based Center for WorkLife Law found 13,000 cases of discrimination that showed that mothers were 79 percent less likely to be hired and 100 percent less likely to be promoted because they are held to a higher standard than non-mothers in their companies.

“Many women couldn’t crack the motherhood ceiling,” said Joan C. Williams, founding director of the center. “They were given fewer opportunities to work on challenging assignments and even told, you can have your baby or your career.”

The United States, Swaziland, Liberia, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea are the only countries among 173 surveyed in 2007 by the Institute for Health and Social Policy at Montreal’s McGill University that don’t guarantee paid maternity leave to new mothers.

Limits on Family Leave

The Family Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of job-protected leave to new parents or adoptive parents or caregivers of elderly relatives, only applies to firms with 50 workers or more, said Williams. “This disproportionately affects women who earn low wages . . . or work for small companies.”

Then there’s the cost of child care, which ran between $4,000 and $20,000 a year per child in 2001, according to a study from the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. Parents of children with special needs and families who lived in areas where the cost of living was higher paid even more. These costs were prohibitive for one-fourth of U.S. families with children and earnings less than $25,000 a year.

Rosemary Harris, a spokesperson of Milwaukee-based 9to5 National Association of Working Women, says all these hurdles are higher for women in lower-wage work. “Many restaurant, clerical and other workers find that they have been fired when they take off a day to look after a sick child or parent,” she said. “They also work when they are ill and develop serious health problems that force them to give up their jobs.”

In March the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C., found that only 48.5 percent of women had earnings each year from 1983 to 1998, compared to 84 percent of men. Three out of 10 women reported four or more years without earnings compared to 1 in 20 men. In any single year, women were more likely to work fewer hours, an average of 500 hours or 22 percent less than men.

“Lower earnings have serious implications for women’s financial security,” said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a co-author of the report. “Over the 15-year-period, the average woman earned $273,592; 62 percent less than the average man who earned $722,693.”

Hard-Pressed in Old Age

Later in life, the gender wage gap means that women–who live an average of five years longer than men–must depend on Social Security checks of about $800 a month versus $1,177 for the average man. At the same time fewer women than men are qualifying for pensions or employer-sponsored retirement plans.

That leads to 1 in 10 female retirees living on less than $10,000 a year; 1 in 5 unmarried elderly women qualifying as poor.

Those economic risks, however, are rarely depicted in media reports, according to a 2006 study by the Center for WorkLife Law, a research and advocacy group at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

The analysis of 119 newspaper articles published from 1980 to 2006 often found a story about women voluntarily “opting out”–cutting back on work or leaving the work force–because they realized they “couldn’t have it all” and were foregoing careers in favor of traditional motherhood.

In addition to downplaying the impact on overall family finances, the articles painted an overly rosy picture of women’s chances of picking up their careers.

“Women aren’t opting out,” said the center’s Williams, lead author of the report. “They are pushed out by job discrimination, lack of child care and workplace inflexibility.”

Plenty of women’s groups are calling for change.

“We have proposed a mothers’ economic empowerment agenda that includes paid family leave for both parents, a refundable caregiver tax credit and benefits for part-time wage earners and other policies,” said Valerie Young, advocacy coordinator for the National Association of Mothers’ Centers, based in Jericho, N.Y. “If the U.S. wants to remain competitive in the global economy, it must do a better job of keeping our high value capital–women–in the paid labor force and available to those who depend upon them for care.”

Sharon Johnson is a New York City freelance writer.


For more information:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Center for WorkLife Law

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