Shriver Report Has More Bad News Than Good for Working Women

Women may comprise half the workforce, but men still have the advantage.

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By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Get ready for a media blitz of massive proportions. Kennedy clan member and California first lady Maria Shriver has harnessed the powers of NBC, Time magazine, and a liberal think tank in Washington to profuse the Internet, print media, and the airwaves with the results of a new report she's produced. It's all timed to coincide with the consummation of a demographic trend that has been decades in the making: Women now comprise fully half of those on U.S. payrolls.

The report, "A Woman's Nation Changes Everything" is embargoed for release for tomorrow, but Gloria Steinem has apparently been given an advanced copy and wrote about it on the website of the group she co-founded, the "Women's Media Center."

Personally, I'm rooting for The Shriver Report to be right in its underlying assumption that government and business will have to adjust policies to meet women's needs as parents and workers in order to keep the economy going, and also that more men will get accustomed to women as indispensable co-workers and co-breadwinners, and thus increase their share of housework and childcare.

At the risk of alienating progressive, well-meaning women, allow me to disagree with the report's "underlying assumption" as described by Ms. Steinem. Let me first say Ms. Steinem is a personal heroine of mine—that, since my teen years when she was first among those leading the charge for women's equality. I have met and interviewed her on a handful of occasions since then, most recently when the Women's Media Center honored me as pioneer in women's media for creating and hosting PBS' To the Contrary for 18 years.

Crossing the demographic divide of making up one half of the workforce is not exactly news to those of us who chronicle women's achievements. And there's more bad news than good in that bit of data. Yes, women are now half the workforce, but they're still the overwhelming majority of those in minimum wage jobs (two thirds of all minimum wage workers) and they have yet to break into, in significant numbers, a fair share of corporate and government leadership posts.

Has there been progress in the 40 years since women made up some 33 percent of the workforce? You betcha! We've had three women appointed (not all at the same time) to the Supreme Court, we have our first female U.S. House speaker, and a handful of women run Fortune 500 companies.

But the progress has been slow and has not nearly evolved to the point where I thought we would be by now. I think it's time to admit that what's holding back women at this point in time is just as much women as it is, well, men. When I say that, I think there are few men left who purposely try to hold women back, but they do exist. Consider what the NRCC said last week in a statement about "putting [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] in her place."

Sexism does abound—I personally believe it is much more prevalent than racism in today's culture. But two things have changed since the halcyon days of what used to be known as the "women's liberation movement" that have also changed the terms of the women's rights debate.

First, we soon discovered that lots of women don't want to work outside the home and would rather stay home with children and have a man support them—even highly educated women. That's fine, but it does hurt women trying to make it in the career world. Guilt by association. Men don't have that problem. Very few of them have the option of quitting work and staying home with the kids.

Second, it's very hard to combine a high-powered career and children, for men and women. And men have been slow in coming to recognize that if their women are going to be breadwinners, too, then men have to pick up half the work of child-rearing.

So rather than look to companies and government to change policies to accommodate women who want to work part-time or flex time, I think women should be looking to the men in their lives to pick up half the child-rearing. There simply is no way to make partner in a major law firm and work 40 or fewer hours per week, nor to become CEO of a major corporation. Family life takes away from career commitment. That's all there is to it. But child-rearing becomes a lot easier if there are two people splitting it in half.