That more American women are now working is hardly news. In 1960, only 35 percent of American women were in the labor force. Today that ratio is 55 percent, which means they hold 44 percent of all available jobs. If these are familiar figures, other statistics startle even the experts. Since 1980, women have taken 80 percent of the new jobs created in the economy. If this pace continues, women will make up most of the work force by the turn of the century.

With more women seeking employment, old debates have been revived and matters once considered settled have become contentious issues. One is whether women who have children should be working at all, and under what conditions. Another concerns the inequities women encounter, and how these may be overcome. A third deals with prospects for advancement, and what women will have to do if they hope to move ahead. But why, we must first ask, have so many women been entering the labor market?

Most women go to work, of course, because they want or need the income. As Table A shows (see page opposite), 45 percent of employed women are single, previously married, or heads of households; virtually all of them work to support themselves.


However, married women account for more than half of the female labor force. Those who do not have children usually take jobs because they want the comforts that come with a two-income household. In the case of married women who have children, the number who work because they need the extra money is difficult to determine. For example, among married couples where the husband makes less than $20,000 a year, two thirds of the wives work, presumably to augment the couple’s income. Even so, a third of those working wives bring in less than $5,000. And with husbands in the $35,000 to $50,000 range, wives who work average $12,500. For some, these may be sufficient supplements. Others might like to make more, but cannot find better paying positions, or must balance work against domestic obligations. As matters now stand, of all the women who take jobs, 52 percent work part time or for only part of the year. Thus when a middle-class mother works to pay her children’s college tuition, the line between choice and necessity becomes blurred. To this may be added the responses to a recent Newsweek survey: three fourths of the women said they would still want to work even if they didn’t need the money.1 Like men, they enjoy freedom and stimulation outside the home.

And, on the supply side, the opportunities have been there. With the economy’s stress on services and office work, there are more jobs suited to the temperaments and training usually associated with women. At the same time, we now have the presumption that any occupation—firefighters, for example, or lumberjacks—must have a convincing case why women should not be considered as applicants. In addition, the fact that women will often work for less money makes them attractive to cost-conscious employers. In sum, there has been an increase in employment among women in every category in Table A. In particular:

  • Younger women are postponing marriage and motherhood, prolonging their years in the work force. In 1970, only 9 percent of women had not married by the age of twenty-seven; now 26 percent at that age are still single. And among married women aged thirty through thirty-four, twice as many have yet to have children compared with their 1970 counterparts.
  • Since 1970, the number of women living alone has increased by 73 percent, rates for separation and divorce have risen by 80 percent, and women heading households have grown by 84 percent. Women in all of these groups are likely to seek work.
  • The largest source of new workers has been married women, most of whom have children. Back in 1960, only 19 percent of married women with children were in the labor force. By 1970, the figure had risen to 28 percent. Now it stands at 54 percent, and will undoubtedly go higher. Most mothers who are now at home say they want eventually to take jobs.

Deborah Fallows and Sylvia Ann Hewlett are not happy about these trends. Fallows, whom I will consider presently, believes a mother’s place is in the home. Hewlett favors work, but says certain conditions must be met. As she demonstrates in her book, we are a long way from meeting them. A Lesser Life includes personal reminiscences, scattered social-science findings, and a sharp indictment of many feminist positions. The author, herself a professional economist and the mother of four children, says that from the start American feminists “encouraged women to enter the world of work on male terms.” In calling for equal opportunity, the National Organization of Women and other groups promised that women would concentrate on their jobs as fully as had men. Moreover, by making abortion a central issue, they implied “that modern women wanted nothing to do with children.” To view a pregnancy as impairing a career, Hewlett argues, betokened an acceptance of “the male competitive model.” Hence her charge that feminists have ignored families and women who desire them. Here, as elsewhere, Hewlett overstates her case, by focusing on one group within the women’s movement. In other circles, child care and family services were certainly important causes.

Hewlett believes all women “yearn to have children,” and should not deny themselves that fulfillment. Those who wish to work should be able to combine a career and parenthood, as men always have. However, given the fact that few fathers put in equal time, mothers must have outside support. Therefore she proposes paid maternity leaves, with the assurance that jobs will be held, and subsidized child care plus flexible work schedules to allow for household chores. “Women need more than equal treatment,” Hewlett argues, “if they are to find fulfillment in both love and work.”


As A Lesser Life reveals, she wanted both herself. Becoming a mother while on the Barnard College faculty, she brought her baby to her office, and to department meetings as well. Hewlett relates that her colleagues were “not amused if Lisa started to wail or filled her diaper in the middle of a meeting.” When one remarked, “We are not running a crèche but a college,” Hewlett replied she thought women faculty were supposed to serve as “role models” for undergraduates. She suspects the reason she failed to get tenure resulted from her “struggles to bear and rear children while holding my job.”

I recount this episode since bringing babies to work is rather different from the other proposals on Hewlett’s list. I asked several women, all of whom worked while they had children, how they would feel about an infant in their office. Even though they all had to cope with sitters who did not show up, none was in favor of bringing the baby to work even in an emergency. Nor am I sure feminists should be blamed for the difficulties women have with their dual lives. True, all of us have criticized the tactics of movements whose aims we support. Still, given Hewlett’s concerns, she is remarkably indulgent toward men who exempt themselves from the greater part of child care. She herself notes that the time husbands devote to family tasks has increased only 6 percent in the past twenty years. Indeed, husbands of working wives pitch in only slightly more than men married to full-time homemakers.

Of course, the women who really need a hand are those who are on their own, owing to divorce or other circumstances. They deserve decent day care and agencies they can call on if their children are home sick. Needless to say, such services would be very costly, especially if they are of a quality we are told we should expect. It can be argued that we owe no less to our youngsters. On one score, however, we ought to be clear. In addition to aiding children, such services also bail out fathers who do very little or leave their families altogether.

Deborah Fallows seemed primed to combine a career and motherhood. Certainly, she had the experience and connections to find a good job. However, after working several months as a university administrator, she concluded she owed it to her children to be a full-time parent. More than that, she has come to believe that all youngsters need that attention. They should have a parent waiting to greet them when they return from school, something not easily fit into most working schedules. Fallows says that even the most affectionate baby sitters cannot replace parents, who are “unique and special people in their children’s lives.” Full-time mothers, she says, average seven more hours per week with their children than mothers who work. I am surprised that the difference is not greater.

The heart of A Mother’s Work is an indictment of day care outside the home, based on visits to several dozen centers in four states. The main problem is that day care tends to be a minimum-wage industry. Since the pay is low, few employees have professional credentials, turnover is frequent, and what passes for care is largely custodial. There are currently more than 25,000 centers, and the number seems likely to grow. A recent survey by the Conference Board, a business association, estimates that some five million children are not even in centers, but left with someone for the day.2 Parents who rely on outside care pay an average of sixty dollars a week, a considerable portion of a mother’s paycheck. Fees for two preschoolers can consume 30 percent of a family’s income.

About the only place to earn Fallows’s approval was a center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had a clientele of educated and well-to-do parents. With a staff of nineteen adults for sixty-five children, even weekly fees of $150 did not cover the costs, so parents were required to put in time. She believes that such a ratio of staff to children, better than at the best private schools, is necessary for quality care. Yet the Cambridge center’s fees amount to more than many mothers take home. Even so, Fallows does not press for public subsidies. Rather, she says, we should “create the circumstances that allow more parents to care for their children themselves.” One step would be family allowances, a stipend paid to mothers for staying at home. A Mother’s Work notes that almost half of all single mothers choose public assistance over taking a job. This suggests, she says, “that even under the strongest economic pressures, many women are deciding not to work.” As it happens, the group she refers to consists mainly of women who started having babies in their teens, and are apt to lack the skills and habits employers expect. In other words, it is unlikely they could find jobs that would pay them more than welfare checks.


Most women work because the money they bring home makes the effort worthwhile. A family allowance that would allow those who want to do so to stay at home would have to be fairly large, considerably more than current welfare stipends, which leave 83 percent of their recipients below the poverty line. Figures for 1984, the most recent we have, show that families headed by women who work full time average $22,799 in earnings. I suspect it would take allowances close to that to induce them to quit their jobs.

Among married couples, more than a third have already accepted that only the husband will work, and they have done this without expecting subsidies. Moreover, this arrangement is as common among lower-income families as among the affluent. Indeed, for many of the families Fallows has in mind, allowances would bolster an already comfortable living standard. The one subvention we currently have, child-care credits toward the federal income tax, is used mainly by families in the middle-income brackets.

Both Hewlett and Fallows are espousing what might be called a “postfeminist” position, one also voiced by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer.3 In their view, the movement not only oversold the joys and benefits of careers, but underestimated the importance of other experiences in women’s lives. Indeed, they contend, many younger women are coming to realize that being a good parent cannot be combined with demanding work. In this connection, Hewlett and Fallows remind us that many women still put their households and husbands first, and have no wish to enter the job market. Nor are they attracted by talk of equality and rights, at least as usually phrased.

Jane Mansbridge analyzes these attitudes in the forthcoming Why We Lost the ERA, an original and perceptive study of the ill-fated amendment. Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, few men had strong opinions either way. The real battles took place among women. Those most strongly for the amendment tended to be better educated, interested in careers, and liberal or radical in outlook. While most women told pollsters that they favored ERA, in fact many had misgivings, which were passed on to legislators. Virtually all the anti-ERA mail came from housewives, whose concern was less the actual amendment than their feeling that “the social respect once accorded to homemakers was eroding.” Indeed, progress in opening up employment reinforced this resentment:

When employers opened good jobs to women, the beneficiaries were highly educated women who had decided not to become full-time homemakers…. For less-educated women, homemaking remained the job of choice, but it lost social standing as high-status women abandoned it…. A job once perceived as noble now seemed distinctly plebeian.

Mansbridge portrays the bitterness of women who found themselves replying that they were “only” a housewife, not only to men but to other women. What they sought to defeat was not simply an amendment, but an attitude and an atmosphere that seemed to devalue their lives.

Lenore Weitzman identifies another group that has not been well served by recent reforms. With the advent of “no-fault” divorce, it is now possible to end a marriage without setting out the reasons. Evidence of adultery and cruelty no longer lead to alimony, not least because such awards were deemed demeaning to women. Judges now regard the two spouses as equals, with the corollary that an ex-wife should be able to support herself. However, the problem, as shown in The Divorce Revolution, is that only a third of all wives had worked full time before they were divorced. And most of those had modest jobs designed to bring in supplementary income. The group that rouses Weitzman’s greatest concern are older women, the fastest growing group among those being divorced. “My husband decided he wanted a younger woman,” a wife of thirty years told Weitzman. “But I’m the one who is being punished.” Another spoke for many when she said, “There is no way I can make up for 25 years out of the labor force.”

Weitzman says, “Divorce is a financial catastrophe for most women,” citing a study showing income declines of 75 percent. Since her book’s interviews took place within a year of the breakups, we never learn how many landed on their feet. In fact, most “displaced homemakers” find jobs and manage decently, albeit at a lower living standard. While they were married, I suspect many held the views Mansbridge describes as defeating ERA. Their experience with the illusory equality of no-fault divorce may have confirmed that opinion.

Kathleen Gerson’s Hard Choices is the best book I have come across on the subject of women and work. She uses her interviews with sixty-three women to uncover varying experiences and attitudes, all of which she analyzes with sensitivity and insight. In so doing, she shows how theories about “gender” obscure much of the reality of women’s lives. According to the so-called structural approach, since men create and control most major institutions, they delineate the choices open to women. “Socialization” theories, on the other hand, stress the ways personalities are shaped, so youngsters accept aspirations deemed suitable for their sex. Gerson points out that actual conditions do not always reflect these hypotheses. You may be raised to expect that motherhood will be the center of your life. However, facts like a divorce and children to support soon counteract that kind of upbringing. And while men still have dominant power, many women are finding not only that they like working, but that chances for advancement are greater than they ever realized. Hard Choices reveals “rising work aspirations” and “ambivalence toward motherhood” among all classes:

I discovered I had lots of skills and talents I didn’t know I had…. There was this whole new me I didn’t know existed.

I got to be an expert at working with field crews and engineers…. I had always just wanted to be a clerk, but I decided I would like to be a boss.

Work makes me feel like a whole person. This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt so good.

Some of Gerson’s respondents found they weren’t cut out for full-time motherhood, while others decided not to have children at all. Several were dubious about marriage:

Little babies aren’t what people tell you they will be. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot you can do with a child four or five months old…. I tried staying home six months. I was ready for the looney farm.

Staying home was not for me. I loved my children dearly, and…I loved my husband dearly. But I wasn’t going to sacrifice my life for these individuals.

I’ve never been interested in children. I’m really scared of kids, scared of the responsibility, scared of what I could do to their minds, to their lives.

I have a tremendous skepticism about men.

I don’t know anybody who says he wants an egalitarian relationship.

The women Gerson spoke with strike me as extremely sensible. Many of them put in doubt Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s dictum that all women “yearn to have children.” Far too many people become parents for the wrong reasons, or no reason at all. Women who give priority to careers are no more “selfish” than parents who press their offspring into preconceived molds. Nor is it a service to youngsters to bring them into the world if you lack the temperament to raise them properly. The title of Hard Choices is meant to be taken literally. Women who choose full-time employment must make daily decisions about which corners to cut. Like whether you will jeopardize your job if you take time off to see your child in a school play.


Three recent court cases have considered the conditions women confront in the world of work. Whether they “need more than equal treatment” was the issue in California Federal Savings and Loan v. Guerra. The question was the kind law professors love: Would the principle that all workers must be treated equally be violated by requiring extra benefits for employees who become pregnant? The Federal Pregnancy Disability Act of 1978 simply states there cannot be any discrimination against women in this condition. They shall, the statute reads, “be treated the same for all employment-related purposes” as other workers who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” However, a California law went further, specifying that women who give birth may take a leave of several months and must have their jobs kept for their return. This could be construed not merely as equality, but as special treatment, since the law made no parallel provision for men. Thus a man who had a heart attack could not demand his job back when he recovered. The statute was upheld by California courts, and the Supreme Court has decided to hear an appeal next year.

Both the Justice Department and employers’ groups have asked that the California law be nullified, since it affords one group of citizens preferential treatment. As it happens, both the National Organization of Women and the American Civil Liberties Union also support that view. “What we women have been saying all along is we want to be treated equally,” Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco’s mayor, stated. “I don’t think the work market has to accommodate itself to women having children.” Nor are those taking this position necessarily being callous. Opponents of maternity benefits worry that once women are taken to be a different class of workers, they can be discriminated against. Special provisions have a long history. Women were not allowed to work at night, or take jobs lifting heavy loads, allegedly for their own good or to protect them from exploitation. Such laws are now held to be demeaning and prejudicial. Moreover, if added benefits mean extra costs, employers may choose not to hire women who could end up having children.

This issue is not one of biology or, for that matter, language. Obviously men and women differ, just as variations may be found within either gender. The question—which we have had to face with racial issues—is whether taking note of certain differences can have results it would be better to avoid. One solution is to get rid of maternity benefits altogether, and replace them with parental provisions that do not depend on disability. Thus fathers or mothers, or both together, could be allowed specified periods to care for an infant while their jobs were being held. Not surprisingly, the Swedes are sensible on this score. According to Ruth Sidel, more than a quarter of eligible fathers take parental leave at the time of childbirth.4 Swedish law also permits employees to stay home to care for sick children, with almost as many fathers as mothers taking on this task. Insofar as there are medical reasons why mothers should take time off before and after a birth, that part of the leave comes under generic surgical benefits, as would a prostate operation for a man.

A second recent case treats differences from another standpoint. In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., a judge was asked to decide whether bias may be presumed if women are found underrepresented in certain kinds of jobs. In Sears’s retail operations, sales positions take two general forms: those on straight salaries, and those awarded commissions, with the latter making considerably more money. As it happened, the commission had no actual complainants, or any witnesses who said they saw discrimination at Sears. Instead, it said that since women held 75 percent of the salaried posts, and only 40 percent of those with commissions, there had to be bias. Each side also retained academic historians, both of them women, to present briefs.

Sears’s expert, Rosalind Rosenberg of Barnard College, argued that women tend to be put off by the competitive atmosphere of commission sales. Moreover, they usually prefer “jobs that complement their family obligations over jobs that might increase and enhance their earning potential.” Much as one might want to see these sentiments changed, the fact remains that these are “values that have been internalized by women themselves.” (This is essentially the “socialization” theory cited by Gerson in Hard Choices.) The charges against Sears, Rosenberg concluded, are based on the erroneous assumption that “women and men have identical interests and aspirations regarding work.”

Alice Kessler-Harris of Hofstra University, supporting the commission, had a more complicated argument. Women’s attitudes toward employment, she said, depend on the temper of the times. These moods are mainly shaped by men, as are attitudes about work felt suitable for women. At the same time, she continued, “where opportunity has existed, women have never failed to take the jobs offered.” In 1850, for example, women were employed in more than a hundred industries, from bookbinding and whip making to gunpowder and clocks. Cigar making, which, in Philadelphia, was done by men, in Detroit belonged to women. During World War I, women performed ably as streetcar conductors, but the job was redefined as “men’s work” once hostilities were over. Given this history, while it may often appear that “women have conformed to notions of domesticity,” these are not ingrained preferences. Rather, such views reflect “employers’ assumptions and prejudices about women’s roles.” And Sears, she said, was one such employer.

Rosenberg, in rebuttal, wondered where this left freely made decisions, given Kessler-Harris’s claim that “women’s choices are so controlled as not to be choices at all.” In particular, the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seemed to be that women who take “men’s jobs” do so willingly, whereas those who choose “women’s work” have been conditioned to do so. The two professors’ testimony has created a furor in academic circles. One resolution circulated by women historians has criticized Rosenberg for allowing her statements “to be used against the interests of women struggling for equity in our society.”

But I don’t think litigation is the best setting for this kind of debate, since neither side admits doubts or ambiguities, and important information is missing. Still to be answered is whether statistical imbalances should be taken as evidence of discrimination. Even the current Supreme Court has taken percentages into account, when it concluded that the absence of blacks in a sheet-metal union could not be explained by the claim that they did not want that kind of work. In the Sears case, we need to know how strenuous an effort was made to interest women in the better-paying jobs, and what kind of commitments Sears made to their fair treatment. Given the information he had, the judge decided for Sears (it was a nonjury trial) relying heavily on Rosenberg’s testimony. The EEOC is appealing, since it wants corrective action even if it could not prove overt discrimination. Kessler-Harris’s brief ends by asking that companies like Sears be ordered to act affirmatively: that is, to make it clear that jobs are open to women whether they are applying for them or not. Only when women are presented with a range of opportunities will we be able to say they have freely chosen the kind of work they want.

Explaining discrepancies between men’s and women’s earnings has become a fulltime industry. For the most part, only persons with fulltime employment are compared, since part-time jobs have varying schedules. As it happens, the government prepares two sets of statistics. The Census Bureau publishes data on men and women who hold full-time positions throughout the year. In 1984, their most recent compilation, women as a group made $637 for every $1,000 earned by men. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for its part, computes men’s and women’s wages during an average week, with the caveat that not all of them worked the entire year. Their tabulations have women making $682 for every $1,000 received by men. Women apparently do somewhat better when they do not commit themselves for a full year.

These statistics conceal substantial variations. Table B shows that young and single women come quite close to men in earnings.


So do black and Hispanic women, although this results in some measure from the lower pay levels of black and Hispanic men. On the whole, though, it is married women who depress the overall differential between men and women, since they take lower-paying positions than divorced women or others who head households. And wives comprise over half of the female work force.

It is not hard to list reasons why some people are paid more than others. At issue, rather, is the adequacy of the explanations. And even if we can agree on the reasons, we may not see them as justifying higher salaries. For example, economists point out that women have been less apt to “invest” in themselves with an eye toward employment—or have had less invested in them by their parents. Thus 28 percent of men who work full time have finished four years of college, while 23 percent of women workers have. And, not surprisingly, women are more likely to interrupt their careers. All told, 42 percent of the men between thirty-five and forty-four have been with their employer for ten or more years, while only 23 percent of the women had such an unbroken record.

June O’Neill of the Urban Institute, a contributor to Women and Work, notes that “women who eventually spend a considerable number of years in the labor market did not anticipate that they would do so.” As a result, they were less likely to have prepared themselves for better-paying positions. (At the same time, O’Neill could locate little evidence that years on the job correlate with performance and productivity.) A related consideration is that women are less likely to join unions: only 13 percent of them do, compared with 22 percent for men. While these may not be the best of times for organized labor, wages of members are still one-third higher than those without union representation. And when women work, they may prefer convenience to higher pay, especially if they have demanding husbands or children.

After reviewing these and other “measurable characteristics,” O’Neill estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of the wage gap between men and women may be attributed to discriminatory treatment of women in the labor market. As it happens, “equal pay for equal work” is now pretty much a national norm. Thus within the same job categories, women and men have essentially the same earnings. Janet Norwood, the current commissioner of labor statistics, says her agency found that pay discrepancies between women and men “nearly disappeared when each occupation was broken down into its component levels based on skill and experience.”5 For example, women classed as Level I auditors make $980 for each $1,000 earned by men at the same ranking. At Level II, women chemists average $940; while women employed as Level III photographers get $1,060, or slightly more than men. At the same time, women are less in evidence at the higher levels. They comprise 36 percent of the lowest tier of auditors, but only 5 percent of Level III photographers.

It has become harder to charge that women get lower pay for doing precisely the same work. Rather, the issue has been redefined as a matter of “sex segregation,” as intimated in the Sears suit, with women being shunted—or shunting themselves—into jobs traditionally receiving lower wages. A National Research Council study concludes that “the overall degree of sex segregation…has not changed much since at least 1900.”6 Tables C and D show both sides of the picture.


On the one hand, it is clear that women now have greater representation in a wide range of occupations. Moreover, enrollments in professional programs portend further gains in the future.

Yet despite these forecasts and figures, each sex continues to cluster along traditional lines. While many male strongholds have had to give way, percentage gains need not express big shifts in absolute numbers. The years 1970 to 1985, for example, found 290,000 more women in the fields of law, medicine, journalism, and higher education. In addition, 220,000 became bartenders, police officers, typesetters, and telephone installers. Yet against that gain of 510,000 in fields hitherto the domain of men, 3.3 million women joined the work force as secretaries, nurses, bookkeepers, and cashiers, augmenting occupations in which women already predominate.

So we are left with the premise that sexual segregation will persist so long as jobs held by women receive lower rates of pay and with its corollary that until men enter a field it will remain underrewarded. Hence the drive to raise pay levels for occupations in which women predominate. And here we have the demands for “pay equity,” based on calculations of “comparable worth,” which were the subjects of a third recent case, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees v. State of Washington. These are difficult subjects to discuss because motives and methods become intertwined. By motive I mean that working women want, need, and are entitled to better pay. Method, on the other hand, asks that we accept the reasoning used to seek that end.

The premise of pay equity is that jobs can be subjected to rational evaluation, which will tell us their “worth” by a measure that allows fair comparison with other jobs. To begin with, proponents of pay equity point out that these kinds of calculations have long been used by organizations in determining salaries. There are even consulting firms that advise on such schedules. In addition, equity asks that fairness (“a just wage”) also come into play in deciding earnings. At the same time, the “worth” of a job need not be expressed in an absolute figure, but may simply be ranked against other occupations. So we may not be told the precise salary a teacher should be paid, but rather where she should rate against, say, a school janitor.

Those pressing for pay equity say that we already have job evaluation techniques that “are based on the well-understood factors of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.” Thus a formula can also bring in such considerations as:

job-related experience, length of formal training required, frequency of work review, the number of other workers an employee is responsible for, impact on and responsibility for budget, physical stress, time spent working under deadlines, time spent processing information, and so on.7

Nor are these simply seminar exercises. Consultants retained by the state of Washington felt sufficiently self-assured to award points to every job on the public payroll. What a clerical supervisor did, plus what she had to do to achieve that position, won her a score of 305, whereas a boiler operator got only 144. To achieve equity, a multiple applied to each point would determine wages. As a faculty member at a municipal college, I would be intrigued to learn how my rating would compare with that of, say, a lawyer on the city’s payroll.

Some proponents of pay equity grant that market forces can also be “indicators of the value of work to an employer.” But even a bow in this direction can confuse the meaning of worth. That is, should nurses’ salaries reflect the fact that what they do is morally and professionally valuable, or must their pay take into account what must be offered in order to attract applicants? Or, for that matter, how much employees augment the revenues of their employers? Those supporting comparable worth like to stress that our current world contains less of a free market in wages than many choose to believe. Despite an oversupply of good law school graduates, some New York firms are paying $65,000 to the ones they hire. In the end, the National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that “unreliability is a serious problem in the evaluation of specific compensable factors.” 8 When the ratings made by pairs of experts were compared, the correlations varied from 0.34 to 0.82, a range unlikely to inspire confidence.

Even so, the state of Washington settled with the civil service union on this basis, and has appropriated $482 million to restructure its pay scale over a six-year period. The chief effect will be to raise wages in positions held mainly by women, while holding those of men steady. Other comparable worth suits are forthcoming, since the Washington case involved public employment, which is less driven by supply-and-demand considerations. All the same, it will be interesting to see whether equity will affect the state’s ability to recruit and keep enough boiler operators. When businesses are brought to court, they may argue that, much as they would like to, they do not have the cash to pay their employees by calculations of “worth.”

Comparable worth has much in common with campaigns of an earlier era. Several generations ago, when fewer wives worked, men pressed to be paid a “family wage.” What they were getting, they said, was simply insufficient to support their households. Making this claim, men formed unions and succeeded in raising their earnings. Needless to say, they did not mention that some workers were single, while others no longer had children to support. The same strategy is apparent in comparable worth. I suspect the real impetus behind pay equity is the need for a family wage by women who have households to maintain. While, as noted in Table A, such women account for only one eighth of all women workers, they have to be keenly aware of the shortfall in their pay. Not far behind them are another 15.6 million unmarried women who, while they do not have children, still must support themselves. Given the cost of housing alone, this is by no means easy on a typical woman’s income.


Would further integration of jobs produce more income equity? This would seem to be a safe prediction, given the charge that segregation by sex foments wage discrimination. Men could make perfectly good nurses or secretaries, but few apply because the pay is low. If women settle for smaller checks, it is because better-paying jobs are not open to them. Or at least not without the kind of effort men seldom have to make. Jean Reith Schroedel’s Alone in a Crowd consists of chapter-length statements by women who hold jobs that have traditionally been men’s preserves. Included are a pipe fitter, a sheet-metal worker, a long-haul trucker, and a tugboat mate. Some of them were ostracized, a situation made worse because they were the only women on the job. Harassment came less from outright overtures than from lewd language, inadequate sanitary facilities, and being given wrong information. In some cases, sympathetic supervisors intervened; but this was not the rule.

Schroedel notes some common denominators among women who sought—and stuck with—these jobs. They liked being outdoors and had kept themselves in shape. Many had fathers who treated them as tomboys, while others had a lot of brothers around the house. More than a few were encouraged to press ahead by their blue-collar husbands. What also emerges is that they benefited from rulings that only came about because of the women’s movement:

I went down to a sand and gravel company that I knew had…two federally funded things, and I knew they needed a woman.

I didn’t start thinking about non-traditional work until I heard the carpenters were looking for women.

If Schroedel’s women are pioneers, and they have had to put up with a lot, they owe their jobs largely to women they have never met who pushed to get affirmative action on the books.

The last decade has seen some men entering “women’s” fields. Telephone operators and flight attendants come most readily to mind. However, they tend to be younger men who live in households with two incomes. Nor have their numbers had an overall impact. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has analyzed some seventy occupations that have enough workers of both sexes to provide wage comparisons.9 From this list, we can assess the relation between job segregation and earnings levels. A sampling of the bureau’s findings, in Table E, shows no clear link between how many women are in a field and their rates of pay, whether measured in absolute terms or when compared with their male colleagues.


Another factor is that the growing presence of women may result from changes in the character of the work. In the insurance industry, for example, the positions of adjusters and examiners were once largely held by men, who went out and inspected dented fenders. Today the work consists mainly of sitting at computer consoles, entering insurance claims. When typesetting required working with hot lead, it was a male stronghold. Now that the tasks can be done electronically, women hold 71 percent of the positions.

However, displacing men can come at a cost. As occupations open up to women, the impression gets about that the jobs are not so hard, or call for fewer skills. This happened when women began to be hired as bank tellers or, for that matter, high-school teachers. A National Academy of Sciences study found that as women enter a field, earnings tend to drop, not only for themselves, but for the men who remain. Each time women rose by a percentage point in an occupation, the field as a whole fell $42 in median annual earnings.10

An inevitable question is whether women who are committed to their work will have a fair chance for advancement. Figures on earnings show how far women have to go. Fewer than 2 percent of women workers have salaries over $35,000, compared with 15 percent of men. And while 1,150,000 men receive more than $75,000, only 60,000 women have reached that level.

Measured in absolute numbers, women have always been strongly represented in what are loosely called professional occupations. In 1970, they accounted for 44 percent of those holding “professional” jobs; by 1985, their ratio had risen to 49 percent. The reason, of course, is that fields traditionally open to women—nursing, teaching, social work, librarians, medical therapists—comprise 70 percent of the jobs the census puts in this category. Among more elite professions, like law and medicine, their share is discernibly lower. In percentages, signs of progress can be seen in the group the census classifies as “executive, administrative, and managerial.” From 1970 to 1985, women came close to doubling their presence, going from 19 percent to 36 percent of the total. Doubtless some part of this progress is explained by the title inflation apparent in many organizations. (We now have vice-presidents with no subordinates, whose work is essentially advisory.) Still, past a certain point, success in management is largely judged by the number of people working under you and the decisions you alone can make. For women, this means not only being picked for promotions, but having positions where they will be supervising men.

A Wall Street Journal supplement on corporate women cited the biggest obstacle to advancement: “Men at the top feel uncomfortable with women beside them.”11 Forming friendships and offering advice take place informally in allmale preserves, notably golf courses and squash courts, not to mention clubs that exclude women. Nuances and humor draw on athletic allusions, mingled with sexual and military overtones. Women entering such circles cannot help sensing that they are seen as outsiders, if not out-and-out intruders. Still, they are moving up—and over—men in fields like retailing and fashion, whose clients are chiefly women. Almost half of the Federated department stores now have women managers. Also, companies that once recruited only men have made more than token changes. Last year, women accounted for almost a quarter of the college graduates hired by General Electric, and a third of those hired by IBM.

How many will go how far is difficult to say. Studies of women in management by Aileen Jacobson and Patricia McBroom recount what is expected of those who aspire to the top. For one thing, Jacobson reports, those who were married had to act as if they did not have a home life. While male executives are allowed to allude to their wives, no one wants to hear about a woman’s husband. Similarly, unmarried men may dilate on their after-work activities, whereas women find it prudent to remain silent. In either case, they “have to find a balance between work and family that is never required of men.” A survey conducted several years ago by the American Management Association found that women executives were “more willing to work long hours” and “give up activities at home if work activities conflict.” Indeed, they only got as far as they did by being willing to make those sacrifices.12 Many of the biases cited in Women in Charge may seem trivial, but when taken together they are not. For example, if women inflect their voices, it suggests a lack of confidence. Jacobson notes that “a woman who smiles too much may not climb the corporate ladder as fast as a smiling man.” Moreover, a willingness to listen to subordinates may be taken as a sign of weakness.

Arguments over equality and opportunity go beyond provisions for pregnancy and children. Also at issue is whether women should agree to be judged by standards men use to test themselves. Women managers told Patricia McBroom “they don’t get the authority they seek unless they learn to act like men.” She finds such an adaptation dangerous. Even worse, she saw signs that they were becoming “hyperaggressive and hypermasculine, denigrating everything feminine.” Hence the anxiety reflected in her title, that women who let work come first will emerge as The Third Sex. She cites a survey of women who have been successful in business, which found that more than half had never been married or no longer were, and 61 percent had never had children. This “widespread loss of reproduction” among career women spells more than a statistical shortfall. In eschewing childbirth, McBroom argues, they are forsaking “the central meaningful act” for members of their sex.

Concern over having children finds support in some recent research directed by Neil G. Bennett, a Yale sociologist. Using census figures, he and his colleagues have projected that among college-educated women who are still unmarried at twenty-five, only half will eventually end up with husbands. And of those who haven’t married by thirty, only one in five can expect to find a spouse.13 One reason is that men die earlier; another is that the baby boom cycle produced fewer matches of appropriate ages. Moreover, as men get older they seek even younger partners when they marry or remarry. A further factor, which the census does not register, is that approximately three times as many men as women identify themselves as homosexuals.14

But the main direction of the study is to show that women have customarily sought husbands slightly more successful than themselves. In the past, “marrying up” usually meant a mate from a wealthier family. More recently, the rule has been satisfied if the man has more schooling and a somewhat better job. By the same token, men have felt more at ease if their wives have fewer credentials. Such a symbiosis was possible when fewer women went to college or remained at work. For example, in the class of 1963, for every 1,000 women awarded a bachelor’s degree, there were 1,396 men at that level. In the Class of 1983, the most recent for which we have figures, women actually outnumbered men by a margin of 1,000 to 977. Ratios at work are undergoing similar changes.

Bennett’s research does not assume that all working women want to get married. But insofar as some do, more than a few will have to consider “marrying down” if they hope to marry at all. This situation has long been faced by black women, who outnumber black men among college graduates, and have stronger representation than white women in professions and management. However, as black women have long known, “marrying up” by conventional canons is not enough. Women who excel in education and do difficult jobs set higher personal standards for the men they want in their lives. The woman quoted in Hard Choices who said “there was this whole new me I didn’t know existed” will not settle for a husband who thinks only his career counts.

I would only add that this pattern is not altogether new. During the half-century from 1890 to 1940, many graduates of women’s colleges rejected marriage and carved out impressive careers in a far-from-friendly world.15 More than a few became physicians and scholars, and pioneered in fields like social work and penology. Although they were attractive, they spurned the proposals of Ivy League suitors, who offered them the status of bankers’ and brokers’ wives. Even at the age of nineteen, when such offers were often made, they knew they wanted to make something more of their lives. What motivated them would be fascinating to know. Certainly, they entered a community of women that was idealistic and energetic. Many of them tended to be religious, which also gave them strength and support. Moreover, they belonged to large families where being the spinster aunt carried weight. These exemplars from a past generation would have some useful advice for working women of today.

This Issue

August 14, 1986