HOW do you raise the status of housework? ``Have men do more of it,'' answers Marianne Ferber, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois.
Mrs. Ferber, together with Francine Blau, a colleague at the same university, has written a paper comparing the economic status of women in all parts of the world. Their overall conclusion is that women have not achieved full equality anywhere. But particularly in the industrialized countries, there has been a reduction of gender differences in economic roles and earnings.
That's no surprise. But some of their statistics and other observations are revealing.
The housework question arises from the authors' point that the degree of participation of women in the paid labor force is an important determinant of their economic position.
It may be wrong, Ferber says, but unpaid housewives don't often achieve proper status in their own right, and will rarely have their own source of income or enjoy economic independence. With the high rate of divorce in many countries, she regards it as vital that women prepare to earn their own living.
One table in the Blau-Ferber paper compares the participation of women in the labor force by world region, using the latest data available. In the advanced industrial nations, the ratio of women's to men's labor force participation ranges from a low of 44.7 to 100 in Ireland to a high of 87.2 in Sweden, with 65.3 the mean.
In Sweden, women have the advantage of subsidized child care, parental leave from work, and a tax system that taxes them as an individual rather than as a couple.
Women are less likely to be employed for pay in the largely Roman Catholic countries of southern Europe (and Ireland) than in the mostly Protestant countries of Western Europe. In eight countries where Catholics make up 80 percent or more of the population, the average ratio of women's to men's labor force participation is 57.6 to 100; in the seven countries where 80 percent or more are Protestant, it is 72.2.
In Latin America the mean is a low 46.5. Again, one reason may be the Roman Catholic church, which emphasizes children and the role of the mother, Mrs. Ferber says.
In the Muslim countries of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Central Asia, the same ratio is only 13.2. In these countries the role of women is seen primarily as wives and mothers ``to the virtual exclusion of activities outside the home.''
The ratio in Eastern Europe, where the influence of Marxist ideology had been strong, is a high 79.7. Ferber speculates that greater freedom and growing unemployment in these nations may lower the ratio temporarily as ``desperately overworked'' women try to take time to breathe or suffer discrimination in layoffs.
In the Caribbean, the mean ratio is 69.1. That perhaps reflects the importance of tourism with its many ``female'' jobs. In East Asia, the mean ratio is 66.4 and in sub-Saharan Africa 67.1.
Other points made by Ms. Blau and Ferber include:
The ratio of women's to men's hourly wages has risen in all the industrial countries, though not everywhere to the same extent. In manufacturing in 1987, the ratio in the US was .71 to 1, in Britain .68, in Sweden .90, in France .77, and in West Germany .73. In the US, the increase in the ratio took place mostly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, later than in the other countries.
The proportion of women getting educated appears to be related to religion. In 64 percent of Christian countries, the ratio of girls to boys in secondary schools was 90 to 100 or higher. But that was the case in only 5 percent of the Muslim countries and in none of the Animist countries of Africa.
Women still do most of the housework in all countries. In the US, men spent 11.9 hours on housework per week in 1985 (the latest data); in Japan, 3.5 hours; in the Soviet Union, 11.9 hours; and in Sweden, 18.1 hours.
In some developing countries, such as Bangladesh, India, China, and Pakistan, women have such low status that fewer survive to adulthood than men. Females may suffer infanticide, poorer nutrition, and other dangers. As a result, the ratio of men to women may exceed 50 to 100, opposite to that in industrial nations where women outnumber men.