Obama pushes help for working women: How much do they need it?

President Obama spoke in Florida about the challenges women face in today's economy. Here's a fact sheet on where working women have made progress and where they still lag men.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama shakes hands after speaking at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., Thursday.

President Obama is ramping up his attention to women's issues with midterm elections looming. On Thursday, he addressed the special challenges that women face in today’s economy during a forum at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla.

The concern is pertinent, but the picture is nuanced. In many ways it’s the whole economy that’s struggling, not just its female half. In fact, by some measures, US women are doing better than they ever have financially, relative to men.

Yet women still face a pay gap compared with men, remain poorly represented in positions of power, and generally carry the largest domestic duties even as they account for a rising share of family income.

In part, Mr. Obama’s talk was aimed at mobilizing female voters with a “we’re on your side” message, paired with the party’s attacks on Republicans as waging a “war on women” on social issues. Obama and fellow Democrats are eager to leverage a longstanding electoral advantage among women.

But where do women stand economically in America today? Here’s a summary of key facts:

Women have rising duties as breadwinners. As of 2011, mothers were the sole or primary income source for a record 40 percent of households with children under 18, according to Census data tracked by the Pew Research Center, which researches demographic trends.

A gender pay gap exists, but its size is disputed. A commonly cited figure is that a woman’s earnings will be 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The gap is considerably smaller – perhaps 7 to 9 percent – once you adjust for pay-affecting factors such as varying time spent in the work force or varying occupations and skills. Scholars debate whether the remaining gap is entirely due to discrimination or partly to other additional factors.

Women carry bigger home front burdens. Even as women now account for 47 percent of US employment, moms also spend more time than dads caring for kids and doing housework. One indicator of the role differences: The Pew research finds that 39 percent of mothers said they had taken a “significant amount of time off” to care for a family member, compared with 24 percent of fathers who said that.

Managerial jobs are disproportionately held by males. A 2010 Government Accountability Office study concluded that women account for 40 percent of managerial jobs (compared with 49 percent of non-managerial jobs) within 13 broad industry sectors. CEOs like Mary Barra of General Motors or Marissa Mayer of Yahoo have become more common, but remain more the exception than the rule.

Attitudes about work, and perceptions of discrimination, vary by gender. Women are less likely than men to say they aspire to being a top manager. But they are more likely to call for changes to improve gender equality in the workplace, and more likely to say that being a working parent has made it more difficult to advance their career, according to Pew Research surveys.

The job market is arguably performing better for women than for men. More women are employed today than were employed in December 2007, as the recession was beginning. That can’t be said for US men, who are still more than 1.2 million jobs short of their pre-recession level. Unemployment remains higher than usual for both sexes.

Women have been racing ahead of men in education. That is increasingly important to job and pay prospects. In 2013, some 38 percent of young women (age 25 to 32) had a college degree, versus 31 percent for men. That’s a reversal from the period before 1990, when men were more likely than women to have four-year degrees.

Women lag behind men in STEM fields. The study of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM fields) tend to lead to high pay. Though the number of women earning science and math degrees continues to rise, the share of these degrees awarded to women has been stuck at around 35 percent since the early 2000s, the White House notes in a fact sheet linked to Obama’s Florida visit.

What is Washington doing to address these issues?

Obama is calling for women in STEM professions to volunteer as mentors to female students in an effort to break down stereotypes that cause can cause girls and young women to opt out of those subjects.

The president also has joined fellow Democrats in calling for passage of a Paycheck Fairness Act that would provide new legal tools to fight discrimination.

More broadly, he’s backing other measures to help middle-class parents – men and women – balance work and child-rearing. The goals include expanding the availability of paid sick leave and new-parent leaves, and helping more families afford child care (through enhanced tax credits).

Many Republicans say the first step to easing the strain on working families is to improve the overall job market. And they argue that their policies in areas like tax reform and paring back on government regulation will help make that happen.

“Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the President’s policies are making people’s lives harder,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington said in a televised rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address in January.

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