Some Women's Work Place Inequality Grows

February 16, 1998

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Women have made "substantial progress" in gender equality over the past 25 years, increasing their presence in the labor market and narrowing the wage gap with men. But a new study by a Cornell University labor economist also provides dramatic evidence that the economic status of less-educated women is deteriorating.

"Less-educated women, especially high school dropouts, have seen their wages fall and their level of participation in the labor market rise at a much slower pace than their more highly educated counterparts. These trends are especially disturbing when one notes that more and more of these women have become the single head of the household," said study author Francine D. Blau, the Frances Perkins Professor in Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "These women are becoming less able to support a family while at the same time more responsible for the family's well-being."

Blau's study found that as many as 38 percent of female high school dropouts with children are now raising them on their own.

The wide-ranging report also found that married women are spending less time on housework, while men are spending more.

Blau's findings are contained in her study "Trends in the Well-Being of American Women, 1970-1995," published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her conclusions are based primarily on a statistical analysis of the Current Population Survey (CPS) from March of 1970, 1980, 1990 and 1995. The CPS is a monthly survey of about 50,000 households conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is the primary source of information on the labor force characteristics of the U.S. population.

The gains women have made in the workplace over the past 25 years are significant, Blau notes. The percentage of women in the work force has increased from 59 percent in 1970 to 72 percent in 1995. Women also have narrowed the wage gap with men and earn 72 percent of the average male worker's wage, compared with earning just 56 percent in 1969. The average women's full-time weekly wage also increased in real terms, up 31 percent during this same period, while inflation-adjusted full-time wages for men have stagnated, rising less than 3 percent in the past 25 years.

But these workplace gains have not been achieved by all women. Blau's analysis of the statistics by education levels shows clear evidence that high school dropouts have been left behind, while their better-educated peers have made progress.

For example, high school dropouts saw their participation rate in the labor force increase only slightly, from 43 percent in 1970 to 47 percent in 1995. Women with more education made significant gains in labor force participation rates: High school graduates increased their participation rate from 51 percent in 1970 to 69 percent in 1995; women with some college education, from 51 percent to 77 percent; and women with a college degree or more, from 61 percent to 83 percent.

High school dropouts were the only group of women who failed to see an increase in their real weekly wages from 1969 to 1994. For this group, real wages fell by 2 percent. Women with high school diplomas saw their real wages increase by 8 percent, women with some college by 9 percent and college graduates by 20 percent.

"These statistics are indicative of what has been happening in the workplace," Blau said. "Women with a high degree of education and skill have been able to move into different employment fields and attract higher salaries. Women with moderate or low skills have lost jobs or have failed to secure promotions."

Further exacerbating the economic problems of less-educated women is that more and more are becoming the heads of the households. Statistics show the incidence of head of household for high school dropouts has doubled in the last 25 years to 24 percent. As many as 38 percent of female high school dropouts with children are raising them alone, compared with only 13 percent for college graduates, Blau reports in her study.

The widening inequality among women, Blau contends, is due, in part, to technology and international trade.

"High-skilled workers in recent years have benefited from technological change; they have reaped the major rewards of the technological changes," she said. "Similarly international trade has, in effect, expanded the supply of less-educated, low-skilled workers to include individuals across the globe, placing downward pressure on wages and employment of low-skilled workers in the United States."

Blau believes that the inequality among women is unlikely to be reduced in the near future. "Experience to date suggests that the expanding demand for highly skilled workers due to technology and trade has been occurring at such a rapid pace that it has far outstripped the impact of any corrective mechanisms," she said.

The widening gap between high- and low-skilled women, as evidenced by the study, parallels the gap among men, Blau said. "It was thought that this widening skill gap was particularly a male problem and that women had escaped it somehow, but clearly that is not the case," she said.

Blau's study also found that housework is being reallocated between the sexes. While women still do the majority of the housework, men are taking on more chores. The number of hours married women spent on housework each week declined by more than 5.5 hours, from 29.1 hours in 1978 to 23.6 hours in 1988 (the year for which the most recent statistics are available). During that same period, the number of hours married men spent on weekly household chores increased 1.6 hours from 5.8 to 7.5.

"With more women working outside the home today, there is less time to do housework," Blau said. "But I also believe that values and attitudes have changed. You can see more fathers taking part in child-rearing and generally playing a more active role in the management of the household."

Cornell University

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