A New Social Landscape

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“Many, many of our families now have a woman as the breadwinner or an essential co-earner of support for the family’s economics … Yet we as a society have not adapted to these changes on the ground,”said Sarah Rosen Wartell, Executive Vice President at the Center for American Progress, at an event on October 19. This fall, CAP and First Lady of California Maria Shriver released “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” Women now comprise nearly half of the workforce, and the report explores what businesses and governments can do to accommodate this major social change. CAP hosted a conference in October that brought together policymakers, policy analysts, and advocates to discuss the report’s key issues and ideas.

Heather Boushey, CAP Senior Economist and co-editor of the report, outlined the major findings. Boushey explained that the recession’s loss of manufacturing and construction jobs “has amplified and accelerated this trend of women becoming breadwinners” because men have lost 7 out of 10 jobs shed in the recession so far. But this is not a “short-term” blip—Boushey said that the traditional family is changing, and encouraged businesses to change with it.

“Up until now, government has focused on allowing women to enter the workplace and compete with men on the same rules that were there before women entered…. [But women] cannot compete in the way that a traditional male breadwinner can, primarily because they don’t have a stay-at-home wife,” Boushey explained. Women are working as much as men, but they still carry the majority of child care and elder care duties.

“Our policies need to keep pace with the changing times,”said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who spoke about the Obama administration’s commitment to helping women succeed in the workplace. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama—amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act by stating that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay discrimination lawsuit resets with each discriminatory paycheck. Solis said this was the administration’s first step toward improving the economic condition of women.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) noted that “The Shriver Report” was released 46 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, but explained that today, women make only 77 cents to the dollar men earn. She said this discrepancy is because “society has undervalued the work that women do in our society.” While she praised the Lilly Ledbetter Act, she also called for the passage of Paycheck Fairness, an act that would expand damages under the Equal Pay Act and put “real teeth into the enforcement provisions in fighting paycheck discrimination.”

Women’s incomes used to be seen as supplemental to a husband’s earnings, but because women are now co- or primary breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of families, they need quality support systems. Among other things, the Obama administration is working to secure better Social Security benefits and child care for working women, as well as training for higher-paying jobs in math and science that men normally dominate.

Stuart J. Ishimaru, acting chairman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws, admitted it’s “hard to change the paradigm,” but he understands the need for flexible workplaces that can work with an employee’s need to care for a sick parent or pick a child up from school. Ishimaru said that in addition to creating the policies such as those Solis mentioned, government can be a “model employer to put [desirable workplace modifications] into action.”

The private sector can make workplace adjustments, too, and these can benefit their bottom lines. Brad Harrington, executive director and research professor at the Boston College Center for Work and Family, said businesses need to be creative and flexible if they want to succeed, pointing to IBM, which cut its real estate costs and became more efficient by allowing workers to telecommute.

And according to Christie Hefner, director of the Board of Directors for the CAP Action Fund, now is an ideal time for businesses to evaluate efficiency. “We’re in a global competitive economy—we’re in an environment where every business wants its leaders to be more productive.”

Adjusting to families’ needs will be different for different businesses. But Ann O’Leary, executive director for the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic, and Family Security, CAP Senior Fellow, and co-editor of the report, said it was important that workplace changes such as scheduling that allows for a work-life balance be available for women at all income brackets.

O’Leary added that, “we have to recognize that professional workers have a tremendous amount more flexibility in our society than our low-wage workers.” Blue-collar workers often have too much flexibility and not enough control—they can be called into work at any time and their schedules often change from week to week. O’Leary explained that reliable schedules may be necessary for women to organize their child-care needs.

Michael Kimmel, sociology professor at SUNY Stony Brook, said that the media portrays men as threatened by successful women. But for the most part there has been a “quiet accommodation” on the part of men to the reality of women in the workplace.

However, he said men need to pick up some of the household duties. It might even be in their best interest to do so—Kimmel cited a Men’s Health magazine study that found that both men and women are happier when men help out at home.

Ruy Teixeira, CAP Senior Fellow, pointed out that balance is not just a female issue. In polls Teixeira helped conduct for the report both men and women agreed that work and family are important in life. “The profound shift in the workforce is viewed as an overwhelmingly positive development for society, primarily because men and women are in agreement as to what they want out of life,” he said. So the growth of women in the workplace, and the flexibility that it is generating, could be good for both sexes.

“The battle of the sexes is over,”said Boushey, quoting the report. Now the challenge is negotiating how to move forward, and “The Shriver Report” can help us navigate our new social landscape.

For more on "The Shriver Report" please see: