Tuesday, July 22, 2008

GUEST POST: Opting out ain’t what it used to be: economics, not psychology, explains an historic decline in women’s employment

Today I'm excited to bring you a guest post from Virginia Rutter, sociology prof at Framingham State College and frequent guest poster at Girl with Pen, who tackles the ever-misrepresented question of the female "opt out" with a close look and some hard facts. - Kristen

Opting out ain’t what it used to be: economics, not psychology, explains an historic decline in women’s employment, by Virginia Rutter

Dear Debbie: While you’re away, make sure you read the New York Times today on women and unemployment. Louis Uchitelle tells us that

...for the first time since the women’s movement came to life, an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen, not risen, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In each of the seven previous recoveries since 1960, the recovery ended with a greater percentage of women at work than when it began.

Economist Heather Boushey and colleagues at the Joint Economic Committee in Congress put this finding in context in a new study. Uchitelle reports:

The Joint Economic Committee study cites the growing statistical evidence that women are leaving the work force “on par with men,” and the potentially disastrous consequences for families.

The proportion of women holding jobs in their prime working years, 25 to 54, peaked at 74.9 percent in early 2000 as the technology investment bubble was about to burst. Eight years later, in June, it was 72.7 percent, a seemingly small decline, but those 2.2 percentage points erase more than 12 years of gains for women. Four million more in their prime years would be employed today if the old pattern had prevailed through the expansion now ending.

The pattern is roughly similar among the well-educated and the less educated, among the married and never married, among mothers with teenage children and those with children under 6, and among white women and black.

While at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Boushey started responding to the blahblahblah about the “are women opting out?” question, by doing what she does best—using data to look for answers. Her paper, Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth, responded to viral anecdotal accounts of highly educated women leaving the workforce. At that time, Boushey reported that the data showed that women were

not increasingly dropping out of the labor force because of their kids. The main reasons for the declining labor force participation among women over the last four years appears to be the weakness of the labor market.

(Boushey discussed some of the complexities of these issues at girlwithpen last year.)

Here’s what I’m thinking: The new study is ominous especially because unemployment is going to continue to hit men and women hard for years to come (for an analysis, see John Schmitt and Dean Baker’s report, What We Are In For: Projected Economic Impact of the Next Recession. And for a reflection on the impact of the recession on families, see Stephanie Coontz and Valerie Adrian’s Council on Contemporary Families’ June 2008 briefing report.

The impact of unemployment, as Uchitelle highlights, continues to be interpreted, understood, and experienced differently for men than for women. So, as the “opt out” narrative (those anecdotes about women who withdrew from the job market that got picked up as a “trend” until Boushey and others started to debunk the myth) tells us, when women lose work, it gets interpreted as being about family and psychology (not about unemployment or the economy), or seen as a return to traditional gender roles (not as women assuming a new gender role on the unemployment rolls). Until someone brings evidence to the subject.


Virginia Rutter said...

There's another blog post on the JEC paper that I highly recommend from Todd Tucker at Public Citizen: http://citizen.typepad.com/eyesontrade/2008/07/offshoring-its.html cleverly titled: "Offshoring: Its Not (Just) a Dude Thing." -Virginia

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I am curious though about what impact the rising costs or child and elder care might play and the fact that in a down employment cycle men might be taking jobs in service sectors that typically went to women.

Marjorie said...

I'd also be interested in seeing if the researchers accounted for women who "opted out" of the labor force in order to start their own businesses. I left traditional paid employment for good earlier this year to pursue a career as a freelance writer, for example.


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