Working Women Ascendant--But Ambivalent

Many still believe men have it better.

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By Jodie Allen, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

"We Did It!" enthuses the Economist magazine, whose recent cover featured the iconic figure of World War II's Rosie the Riveter. The cause for celebration, as described in the magazine's "leader," (editorial in Americanese) is the ascent of womanhood to a majority position in the U.S. workforce, projected to occur sometime in the next few months. "Women's economic empowerment is arguably the biggest social change of our times ... Millions of women have been given more control over their own lives. And millions of brains have been put to more productive use," write the editors.

A national poll conducted last spring by the Pew Research Center finds plenty of support for the female ascendancy: Only a small minority of Americans (19 percent) now think women should return to their traditional roles in society. And according to a separate survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project, a mere 15 percent of the public now says that insufficient toughness on their part accounts for the scarcity of women in top business positions (though the persistence of an "old boys network" remains a retardant, according to the public).

As a woman who came of age at a time when her mother (herself a pioneering law school graduate) counseled her to start off work life by taking the federal civil service exam "because they can't weed out high scorers," I can only join in the Economist's applause. But how do most of today's Rosie Riveters feel about being "put to more productive use?"

In a word, ambivalent. A 2009 Pew Research poll found, for example, that a substantial majority of all working mothers (62 percent) say they would prefer to work part time. Only 37 percent would prefer to work full time. By contrast, an overwhelming majority (79 percent) of working fathers say they prefer full-time work. Only 1 in 5 would prefer part-time employment.

These findings mirrored those recorded earlier in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey in which a majority of working mothers (60 percent) said the ideal situation for them would be to work part time. Interestingly, 10 years earlier, only 48 percent of working mothers expressed that preference. Working moms are also considerably more likely than either at-home moms or working dads to say they always feel rushed—4 in 10 say so, compared with a quarter of the other two groups. And the great majority (86 percent) say they sometimes or often feel stressed. But so do almost as many mothers who stay at home (82 percent), though somewhat fewer working fathers (74 percent) feel stressed.

Working mothers also share the general public's concern about inadequate day care. Like other polls on the subject, Pew Research Center surveys show continuing worry about the number of children in day care centers: In a 1987 poll, 68 percent of the public agreed that too many children were being raised in day care centers; a virtually identical 72 percent said the same in a 2003 poll. Mothers with small children of their own were especially likely to agree strongly. And though they are less likely than stay-at-home moms to express doubts about the increasing presence of mothers in the workforce, working mothers are split—34 percent to 34 percent—on the question of whether the trend has been good or bad for the society (31 percent don't see much of an impact one way or the other).

A 2008 Pew Research poll summed up the current accounting: By a ratio of nearly two-to-one, Americans say that, all things considered, men rather than women have a better life in this country. Perhaps not surprisingly, women are considerably more likely than men to ascribe to this view.

As for remedies, the free-market-minded Economist is quick to warn against any "massive intervention, in the shape of affirmative-action programmes and across-the-board benefits for parents." Still it allows that America might cough up more dough for publicly-funded child care and paid maternity leave.

The popular Huffington Post suggests an even less intrusive approach. In last Monday's Daily Brief, Arianna Huffington and Cindi Leive offer a New Year's resolution that, they assert, would do much to raise the status of American women. "No, we're not talking about universal child care or even banning Tiger Woods from ever texting again," they write. "[G]etting enough shuteye is the next feminist issue. After all, women have already broken glass ceilings in politics, sports, business and the media—just imagine what we can do when we're fully awake."

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