Working Women's Staunchest Allies: Supply And Demand

Working women have plenty of problems in the workplace, as we were reminded so dramatically during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Yet those problems stand in stark contrast to women's rapid progress in occupations and earnings compared with men's since the late 1970s. The U.S. is getting much closer to granting equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender or family situation.

The proportion of married women who work has increased continuously: Now, more than 60% of married women with young children hold jobs. Women in the 1970s and '80s entered many professions at a breathtaking pace. They make up some 40% of the students in schools of law, medicine, business, architecture, and journalism, and are a small but rapidly growing share of those majoring in engineering. The percentage of male college graduates going on to law school has actually fallen since 1970, while females in the legal profession have risen from a negligible share in the early '70s to almost 25% now.

Median earnings of women working full time were comparatively stable from 1960 to 1979, at about 59% of the earnings of men -- which means a gender gap of about 41%. But then, as reported in the Census Bureau's Money Income of Households, Families and Persons, the gap began a steady fall, dropping below 30% in 1990. I expect it to continue to fall throughout this decade.

Even 30%, however, overstates the true gap, since female full-time workers put in about 10% fewer hours a week than male full-time workers, and they have less previous job experience. The gap between men and women working the same hours and with the same experience is well under 20%.

LAME EXCUSE. The most important reason for women's progress is their increasing presence in the labor force, as the nature of the family has changed. Birth rates have dropped more than 35% since the late 1950s, freeing women from child care duties. Rapid expansion in the number of jobs in the service sector has let women combine child care with part-time work and flexible schedules. The exploding number of divorces after the mid-1960s forced women with dependent children to earn a living and provided a warning to married women that they should be prepared to work in the event their marriages should break up. Young women who have entered professions and other skilled occupations during the 1970s and 1980s continue to advance into more responsible positions, even if a "glass ceiling" has kept most from getting to the very top. Not long ago, some women lost their jobs when they married. Women employees were paid much less than men, sometimes because of outright discrimination rationalized by the lame excuse that they were not the main breadwinners. The atmosphere created by civil rights legislation and the women's movement help combat such policies. These were not, however, the main forces behind their progress, since the gender gap in earnings did not begin to decline until more than a decade and a half after passage of the far-reaching Civil Rights Act of 1964. Women advanced most rapidly during the Reagan and Bush Presidencies -- surely no more active in civil rights enforcement than previous Administrations. Moreover, not all minority groups advanced during the 1980s: Black men fell a little further behind white men.

Women's substantial progress during the '80s helped muffle the call for more radical legislation to aid them. There is much less support now than a decade ago for the silly system of government wage-setting figured on the basis of "comparable worth," the inevitably arbitrary judgments of statisticians and bureaucrats about what the pay should be in different eccupations. Rapid entry of women into prestigious occupations has also quieted the call for quotas. Even supporters concede quotas aren't really what they have in mind.

MOTHERS' HELPER. Instead, the drive to aid women is concentrating on other kinds of intervention in labor markets. Current favorites are mandatory, unpaid leave for parents when children are born or get sick and mandatory child care facilities at work. Bills in Congress would make child care leave available to either parent, but the example of Sweden -- which has a liberal leave system -- suggests that almost all would be taken by women.

Forcing business to provide leave is both inefficient and unjust. It in effect discriminates against single persons and against married women and men with no children or with grown children. It's one thing to call for a gender-neutral productivity test for pay hikes and promotions, but another to make business give preference to persons with young children. And while the present proposals are mild, everyone knows they are only a first step toward the Swedish system of requiring full pay for employees on child care leave.

The law of supply and demand, along with civil rights legislation, is steadily improving the economic position of U.S. women. Extensive intervention in labor markets to help them is unwarranted and will do more harm than good in implementing the principles of equal pay and equal employment opportunities for equal work.

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