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The Fast Pace of Change for Women Workers Can’t Distract From the Work Left to Do | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

The Fast Pace of Change for Women Workers Can’t Distract From the Work Left to Do

Editor's Note: Please join us for a livechat with Bryce Covert, along with Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and Joan Entmacher and Kate Gallagher Robbins from the National Women's Law Center, on Tuesday, March 27th, at 1pm EST, here in the comments section! The discussion will center on the obstacles that women face in the current economy and the ways in which women can achieve economic equality. To join the chat, please use the comments box at the top of the conversation thread, rather than the “reply” function.

“You’ve come a long way, baby.” That was Virginia Slims’ opening salvo to the professional woman when it launched a brand aimed solely at her less than a half century ago. That half-century has seen radical changes in the American workforce, women’s roles and the shape of our families.

In that time the birth control pill became widely available, helping to triple the number of working women from the 50s to the aughts. The latest generation of women workers has the most positive outlook on their careers and the labor force than any in history. Almost 40 percent of today’s working wives outearn their husbands. And women who have children are much more likely to stay in the workforce when their kids are young than they were in the past.

Yet for all these steps forward, there are some steps we’ve yet to take—and ones that have taken us backward. Women still make only eighty-one cents for every dollar men earn, which ends up costing them $431,000 in pay over a forty-year career. That’s on top of all of the other expenses they have to shell out money for that men don’t have to worry about. That wage gap also leads some women to drop out of the labor force later in life when they see their husbands making so much more money, and while the youngest generation of women are optimistic about their career prospects, they still feel more slowed down by parenting than men. And we may have made up ground in the office, but we are still faltering on Capitol Hill: women make up half of the country’s population but only 16 percent of Congressional seats.

The latest economic catastrophe hasn’t been kind to women either. The initial crash was called a “mancession” because men had a much higher unemployment rate than women, but now men and women have the same exact unemployment level—and women’s rate is actually higher than at the beginning of the recovery, while men’s has dropped. Meanwhile, during the recovery women have mostly been losing jobs while men have made some gains, and they only got about a third of the 200,000 of the jobs added in January and February.

They’ve also been left out of the rebound in manufacturing that’s been making economists feel optimistic. Between 2010 and 2011, men gained 230,000 jobs in the sector, but women lost 25,000.

This is by no means a complete list of our gains and our roadblocks in the American economy. But it’s clear that while there’s much to celebrate, this is no time to sit back and declare victory. In fact, doing so risks letting these gains slide backward under the steady barrage of attacks from the right and under a system that still needs changes at its core. Supporters of women’s equality have a tricky task ahead of us: being able to recognize the incredibly fast pace of change over past decades while keeping our eyes trained on all of the ways that women still struggle for economic equality.

The questions remain: How much progress have women made? At the same time, what obstacles still stand in the way of full economic equality with men? How can we keep working to overcome them?   

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