Do All Women Leaving the Workforce Have a Choice?

Dr. Hartmann Testifies June 6th

On June 6, Heidi Hartmann, IWPR President, Eileen Appelbaum, Director of the Rutgers University Center for Women and Work, and Diana Furchgott-Roth, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow, testified before the Congress Joint Economic Committee, discussing the impact of the current economic downturn on women. While Dr. Hartmann and Dr. Appelbaum argued that numerous economic pressures on women have forced many to leave the U.S. labor force since its peak in 1999, Ms. Furchgott-Roth countered that the decline in female participation in the workforce signifies that women are voluntarily choosing to stop working. She attributed this decline primarily to the many women who had children during this time. As I watched the debate unfold between them, I found myself questioning the validity of her arguments and wondered: do all women who leave the workforce truly have a choice?
I believe that it is a woman’s choice whether to have a professional career or to devote her time and energy to motherhood; it is her right to decide. Yet I doubt that, in lieu of the slumping U.S. economy and the many financial barriers that women face, all of these women left work completely out of their own preference. Many factors most likely affected their decisions. Research shows that women leave the workforce for many reasons, including child care costs, lack of workplace flexibility, and earnings disparity.
A large number of women in the United States cannot afford to balance both childrearing and their careers. Child care is increasingly more expensive, and if hiring a baby-sitter costs literally as much as a woman’s salary, then she may feel compelled to simply raise the children herself, abandoning her own career aspirations.
In light of the current economic downturn, rising child care costs only worsen families’ financial situations. Child care fees at licensed centers reach as high as nearly $15,000 a year for infant care, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. All-day care for older children can cost as much as $11,000 a year, more than most U.S. families spend in a year on food or public college tuition.
Employers often do not improve this situation. Many offer an insufficient amount of maternity leave time to female employees, who frequently can be subjected to employee discrimination for both their gender and parental status. In her June 6 Congressional testimony, Dr. Hartmann cited single mothers as having a particularly high unemployment rate, experiencing difficulties finding work that can accommodate their available child care options. Many women who would like to return to work face many barriers in doing so—they are victims of a still unequal society.
IWPR’s recent report Statutory Routes to Workplace Flexibility in Cross-National Perspective details how many women stop paid work altogether when faced with little workplace flexibility or affordable childcare. The report’s findings indicate that statutory employment rights should be modified to grant employees the right to request flexible working hours and arrangements, to make it possible to balance work and family.
We need to equalize the family care burden between men and women in the United States. Only after women receive equal rights and considerations as employees and workplaces embrace work flexibility standards already set by other leading nations will women be able to make truly free decisions for their own lives.
Furthermore, women still do not earn equal salaries to men, pressuring their economic decision-making. According to IWPR’s The Best and Worst State Economies for Women, in no state does the typical full-time woman worker earn as much as the typical man. At the present rate of progress it will take 50 years for women to achieve earnings parity with men nationwide. Additionally, IWPR’s report Still A Man’s Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap shows that over a 15-year-period women earned 62 percent less than men, or 38 cents for every dollar that men earned.
Naturally, if a couple must choose who will stay home with the children and who will continue to work, generally the spouse with a higher income – usually the male – will stay at work. If the wage gap did not exist, and the disparity in salary levels between men and women were to dissipate, then many women would have more freedom in their choices and would not necessarily be pressured into staying at home.
As I watched Dr. Hartmann present a compelling argument refuting Ms. Furchgott-Roth’s claims during the Congressional hearing, she reminded us of the many barriers that women still face. The current economic downturn only worsens the situation for American women, furthering burdening the decisions they must make. It is crucial for women to ask themselves: am I staying home with my children because it is truly what I want, or because it is more economically feasible? If you are doing as you please, more power to you. But if you answer is the latter, then we still need some real change.
By: Elizabeth Mattey
IWPR Communications Intern

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