Gains for Working Women

The attention paid to sexual harassment suits, the "glass ceiling" that often hinders female executives, or other problems women face in the workplace hides a remarkable story: the progress American women have made toward gender equality over the past 25 years.

After examining dozens of indicators of women's well-being in the labor market and the family, Cornell University labor economist Francine Blau finds "substantial" advancement.

In view of the evidence she presents, that may be an understatement. In all history, no society has provided as much opportunity for women as have English-speaking nations and some Scandinavian lands in recent years.

This newspaper, founded by a woman, Mary Baker Eddy, applauds the growing recognition in law, business, and the home that men and women are created equal in the sight of God.

Ms. Blau, in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, offers some statistical evidence showing US progress:

* Women's decision to take paid jobs "is increasingly determined by ...opportunities and less by the demographic and economic circumstances of their families," writes Blau.

* The gender wage gap has shrunk. The average female worker earned 56.2 percent of the average man's pay in 1969; 71.7 percent in 1994.

Overall, women's real wages increased by 31 percent between 1969 and 1994. Men's real wages stagnated, rising only 3 percent over that 25-year period. But the least-educated women saw their real wages fall, though less than did the least-educated men.

* The segregation of men and women into different occupations dropped decidedly, suggesting expanding opportunities for women. A segregation index, which gives the percentage of women who would have to change jobs for the occupational distribution of the two genders to be the same, has fallen about 14 percent in each decade.

* In 1970, 49 percent of women participated in the labor force. By 1995, that had risen to 71.5 percent. For women with less than 12 years of education, the participation rate rose only from 43 percent to 47.2 percent. For female college graduates, the rate in 1995 was 83 percent.

The difference in participation rates between men and women declined from 45 percentage points in 1970 to 16 percent in 1995.

Black women were more likely to be in the labor force in 1970 than white women - 59 percent versus 49 percent. But by 1995, black women's participation rate (70.4 percent) had fallen slightly below that of whites.

* The percentage of working women who are self-employed rose from 4.1 percent in 1975 to 6.7 percent in 1990. The comparable figure for men in 1990 was 12.4 percent.

* In families with employed wives, the ratio of husbands' to wives' housework hours rose from 26 percent in 1978 to 37 percent in 1988.

This progress does not mean discrimination and gender-related restrictions affecting women have disappeared. But progress should be recognized and thereby encouraged.

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