Washington’s Working Women 2010: Progress stalled without new workplace policies

The lingering impacts of recession highlight the central importance of women’s  work to family economic survival – but also the gulf that still separates women’s  earnings from men’s, and the need for new policies that promote healthy  workplaces and healthy families.  


Attitudes and the actuality of women’s work changed dramatically through the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The women’s movement and anti-discrimination legislation encouraged women of all ages, incomes, and races to enter and stay in the paid workforce in increasing numbers and in a greater variety of jobs. Since the early 1990s, however, progress toward gender equality at work has been incremental at best.

Washington women workers in the middle of the earnings spectrum made 76% of men’s hourly wage in 2009 – the same percentage as in 1993. The gender ratio in most types of work is only a few percentage points different today than in 1990. The clear exception is in the highly paid field of information technology, where men have come to dominate.

Because gender segregation at work is still prevalent, men have been far more likely than women to lose a job during the current recession. Unemployment rates were below 5% for both men and women in Washington in 2007. By the end of 2009, unemployment had shot up to 10.4% for men and 7.8% for women. Families are more dependent than ever on women’s wages, yet Washington’s  typical woman continued to earn $15,000 less per year than the typical man.

Career ‘choice’ and family care

Women “choose” different occupations in part because they continue to provide the majority of family care. Mothers spend more than three times the amount of time each day caring for children than do fathers. Women also  perform 70% of elder care, with daughters twice as likely as their brothers to  care for aging parents, and wives more likely to care for their parents-in-law  than husbands are for their own parents.

Workplace policies have not yet changed to reflect the fact that most adults are in the labor force. The U.S. stands alone among economically developed nations in not providing universal paid leave for new parents and setting other  minimum standards for paid leave. Only 8% of employees in the U.S. receive  paid family leave from their employers, and 4 in 10 workers lack paid sick leave.

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