WHAT'S the question the United States Department of Labor recently asked working women across America. In a groundbreaking survey called ``Working Women Count,'' the department's Women's Bureau sought women's views on pay, benefits, opportunities for advancement, and child and elder care. It also conducted a parallel scientific survey of another 1,200 working women for comparison.
Now the responses, a quarter-million strong, have been tallied. Working women's descriptions of themselves can be summed up in four words: overworked, underpaid, underpromoted, exhausted. Stress, in fact, ranks as their No. 1 problem.
Nearly 80 percent of women stated that they either ``love'' or ``like'' their jobs. But as breadwinners who are increasingly the sole support of their households, they say their pay and benefits are not commensurate with their work or their responsibilities.
These women take their jobs seriously. But they find that neither employers nor public policies support their family responsibilities. In addition, problems with child care are deep and pervasive, affecting families across the economic spectrum. Improving pay scales and health-care insurance rank as top priorities for workplace change. Women also want more on-the-job training and opportunities for advancement.
These findings are only the latest reprise of a recurring theme. But they serve as reminders of economic and social problems still to be solved. Child care, for example, has all but disappeared from the national radar screen in recent years. Yet three-fifths of women with children age 5 and under say finding affordable child care is a serious problem.
Similarly, pay equity has been eclipsed by higher-visibility workplace concerns, such as sexual harassment. And in an age of downsizing, people with jobs become more reluctant to complain about inequities for fear of jeopardizing their standing.
The Labor Department calculates that 99 percent of American women will work for pay sometime during their lives. Already women make up nearly half the nation's work force. Speaking of women's workplace challenges, Karen Nussbaum, director of the Women's Bureau, stated, ``We really have to start a national debate on this.'' That could be useful. But employers should not need task forces and reports to teach them about fairness. Every corporate effort to remedy inequities will ultimately benefit all workers, male and female, and the families who depend on their paychecks.