Cathy Young: Gender equality in the workplace, home

commentDecember 19, 2013 

Half a century into the feminist revolution, have its children won equality? Depends on how you measure it.

A survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that while some discrimination persists, many people may have an inflated idea of its scope -- and that lingering gender disparities are far more likely to result from personal choices and family roles. Yet studies also show that while men's and women's life preferences are not identical, they transcend stereotypes for both sexes -- and both need better opportunities for work-family balance.

Findings from the Pew survey of more than 2,000 Americans is supplemented by an analysis of Census Bureau data on earnings. In 2012, hourly earnings for women 25 to 34 were 93 percent of their male counterparts. (For all women, the figure is 84 percent -- up from 64 percent in 1980.)

This is not lower pay for the same work; much of the gap is due to differences in occupation and experience. More than a quarter of women who have kids say they have quit their job at some point to care for a child or another family member, compared with just 1 in 10 men. Half of working mothers, but only 16 percent of working fathers, say being a parent has made it harder to advance in their careers.

What about sex discrimination? More than half of all Americans (55 percent) told Pew they think women are generally paid less than men for the same work; 46 percent say men are favored in getting top-level jobs. But is this belief based on personal knowledge or media coverage?

Perhaps the latter. According to the survey, released last week, only about 10 percent think women are treated unfairly in pay and opportunities for promotion at their workplaces, while about three-quarters (men and women alike) say women are paid and promoted equally. Fewer than one in five women reports experiencing sex discrimination on the job (as do one in 10 men), and just 10 percent of women say discrimination has negatively affected their careers.

Does this mean that, as many conservatives argue, perceived inequalities between the sexes are natural and should be left alone? Not necessarily. It's not easy to separate the effects of society and culture from the effects of biology in shaping personal choices and family arrangements -- and those roles have already undergone a vast evolution. (According to the Pew Research Center's "Modern Parenthood" report, released in March, fathers' time spent on child care has tripled since 1965.)

Today, there is still more pressure on women to be caregivers and, especially, on men to be breadwinners. Even among young Americans, a 2011 Pew poll showed, being able to financially support a family is regarded as far more important for a married man than a married woman.

While polls consistently find that mothers with young children are far less likely than fathers to regard full-time work as the best situation, a significant proportion of fathers -- about one in four -- now say they prefer to work part time or stay home. And, in the "Modern Parenthood" study, working dads were half as likely as working moms (23 percent versus 46 percent) to feel they spent enough time with their children.

In the new Pew poll, two-thirds of all Americans and three-quarters of women born after 1980 support continued change to achieve equality in the workplace. Perhaps focusing on equality in the home would be a good place to start -- including more support from women, as well as from society at large, for men's role as fathers and more flexible work-family options for men.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics. She wrote this for Newsday.

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