SSN Memo

Support for Working Women is Good for Families and the Economy

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Washington Center for Equitable Growth

This piece is part of SSN's Forum on Support for America's Working WomenClick here to read the next contribution to our forum from Susan L. Brown, "Why Less Educated Women Struggle in the U.S. Labor Market – And How We Can Help More of Them Opt In."

Policymakers who care about economic growth need to start by recognizing that most American families include a working woman. For too long, the United States has allowed families to flounder in an environment fashioned for a bygone era when women typically did not work outside the home and many families had full-time, stay-at-home caregivers who could handle of all of life’s big and little family emergencies. Now the realities of how families interact with the economy are very different, and policymakers need to recognize the new landscape and implement some obvious ideas for helping workers and their families cope. Both families and the entire U.S. economy stand to benefit from new measures to support working women and families.

Families now come in a wide array of forms and, in most, women and men work outside the home, even when children are very young. This is true up and down the income spectrum. Families at the very top are typically busy, two career families, where adults put in fairly long hours of work, while those at the bottom typically have a single mother heading a family with children. In the middle, two parents usually work both inside and outside the home.

The specific challenges depend on where families fall on the income spectrum.

  • Retail and service workers struggle with a lack of predictable hours and schedules for jobs with low wages and few, if any, benefits. These workers are among those least likely to have access to any paid sick days or paid family and medical leave.
  • At the top, managers and elite professionals struggle with long hours in jobs that place more of a premium on “face time” than on getting things done. Although many of these privileged employees are paid handsomely and enjoy on-the-job benefits and apparent flexibility in work hours, those who take time to meet family needs can end up penalized when promotions or plum assignments are handed out.
  • Families in the middle with two working partners often struggle with tag-team schedules, modest pay and benefits, and very little workplace flexibility. Even though they earn enough to put them in the middle class, they struggle to afford high quality care and too often don’t have workplace benefits.

The common denominator for most American families today is stress from the lack of a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver. Of course, the reality of women working outside the home isn’t exactly new. Most have been employed outside the home since the early 1980s. But you would not realize this from listening to politicians. Case in point: during the second debate in the 2012 campaign for U.S. president, the Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney answered a question on pay equity by saying, "I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible.” If? Romney seemed oblivious to the reality that most American women are already in the labor force – the need for flexibility is now. The question is when and how the country will ensure the necessary flexibility.

American families are already struggling mightily to sort out the daily dance between jobs and caring for the young and the infirm. The new, reliable public policies they need include paid family and medical leave, the right to earn paid sick time, and rules for workplace flexibility that benefit employees, not just employers. Family friendly workplace rules must include predictable schedules, a degree of flexibility when family emergencies arise, and relief from sudden demands to work overtime or schedule new hours or days on short notice.

Some workers are fortunate to work for organizations and employers that already have such benefits in place – but not most American workers. Let us just look at one area in detail: paid family and medical leave. Looking across all private sector employees, only 12 percent report having had access to employer-provided paid family and medical leave in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And current paid leave benefits are highly skewed across the income ladder. Workers who earn wages in the highest 25 percent are four times more likely to have access to paid family leave through their employer than those who earn wages in the bottom 25 percent.

The United States is the only advanced industrial nation without legally required paid maternity leave and one of few that does not ensure paid family and medical leave, which can be used when a worker is recovering from serious illness or needs to take time off to care for a newborn or disabled relative.

America’s failure to protect workers and their families in these ways hurts the national economy. In the 1990s, the United States had one of the highest women’s labor-force participation rates among industrial economies, but in the most recent two decades the labor-force participation of U.S. women has plateaued and now ranks 17th out of 22 advanced countries. The lack of family-friendly policies is a likely explanation, according to Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, who explain in their recent book on Female Labor Supply that “most other economically advanced nations have enacted an array of policies designed to facilitate women’s participation in the labor force, and such policies have on average expanded over the last 20 years relative to the United States.”

Most families cannot afford to have a woman worker take unpaid leave to meet caregiving needs, because they rely on women’s wages to make ends meet week to week and month to month. Some U.S. firms know this and already provide paid family and medical leave, although not very many, because unless such payments are required of all firms by law, they are costly for many to offer. Of course, firms that can and do offer paid leave understand how economically effective it can be as a tool for retaining and supporting valued employees. Just in the last year, Google increased its maternity leave to about five months fully paid – and noted that attrition by women with children decreased by 50 percent as a direct result.

In short, U.S. policymakers in Congress and the states need to face up to the challenge of ensuring paid family leave for all workers, regardless of the firm, organization, or industry that happens to employ them. It is time for our country to stop asking “if women work…” and start figuring out how to help the large majority of families where women already work for both wages and as caregivers