WOMEN have come a long way economically since the days when their financial status depended on pin-money handouts from a husband or sugar-bowl savings from their own thrifty ways. As they have poured into the work force in recent decades, they've contributed millions of paychecks and billions of dollars to their family incomes. Yet a myth persists that many are only ''helping out,'' providing supplementary income for discretionary expenses.
What a misconception! A major study released today by the Families and Work Institute finds that 55 percent of employed women earn half or more of their household income. Eighteen percent provide all the earnings, 11 percent provide more than half, and 26 percent provide about half. Far from buying only extras, these paychecks supply essentials -- housing, food, transportation, child care. The economic viability of many households depends on women's earnings.
The study, called ''Women: The New Providers,'' looks at important family, work, and social issues facing women in the United States. Its findings should end forever the debate about whether women should or should not work.
''The new provider role is here to stay,'' the report states, referring to women's dual role in providing economic as well as nurturing support. The report also refutes the notion that if women didn't need the money, many would quit their jobs and go home -- fast. To the contrary, women's interest in work outside the home is growing, the study shows.
Even if money weren't a consideration, nearly half would like to work part time or full time. And despite a widespread ''time famine'' facing both men and women, a majority of women say they would not want to give up some of their responsibilities. Most enjoy their full, busy lives, the study says.
Yet that doesn't mean all is well domestically or professionally. On the home front, more than half of women cite insufficient family time as their greatest concern. Many would like the option of working less than full time -- a desire shared by men who took part in a portion of the survey. Both men and women, in fact, see caring relationships as the core of successful family life.
But working parents can find themselves in a trap: If they reduce their hours to spend time with their families, they risk losing benefits their families need. Only 30 percent of women who work reduced hours have access to benefits, compared with nearly 80 percent of those working full time. No wonder women cite a lack of benefits as their top workplace concern, along with the difficulty of balancing work and family responsibilities.
Women also face a second economic penalty: wages that are generally lower than men's.
What will help these New Providers?
The answer, according to the report, a three-way effort by the Families and Work Institute, Louis Harris and Associates, and the Whirlpool Foundation, is not to try to reduce women's responsibilities. Rather, the goal must be to support both women and men in their new roles. That includes providing access to more diverse work patterns. It also means offering less than full-time work with decent pay and prorated benefits.
Diverse work patterns can include everything from flextime schedules to flexplace work sites, otherwise known as telecommuting from home part of the week. As for wages, if employers can shake the notion that women are just temporary employees or supplementary wage-earners, perhaps a two-tier wage scale will finally be seen for what it is: grossly unfair.
The workplace hasn't yet caught up with the reality of the New Providers. Even so, the term should remind employers that women come to their jobs not only with equal abilities but with equal economic needs. Committed, motivated, concerned with the quality of their work, they want to do a good job, even if they might not have a good job, the report finds.
The image persists of the woman as a worker-by-whim, picking up pin money for the proverbial rainy day. At this late date, that myth should require no demythologizing. But it does. As long as women employees are treated as in some way marginal, terms like New Providers serve as a necessary -- and hopeful -- reality check.