If you have a job today, consider yourself lucky. If you’re a woman and you’re employed, you’re theoretically better off than you’ve ever been. Unfortunately, all the good news—the opportunities for women are greater today than at any point in the past, and the pay gap between men and women is at its narrowest—is tempered by corresponding bad news—though women form more than half the labor force, they only make up 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. And the income disparity? It’s hovered at around 80 percent since 2005. At least in terms of unemployment, woman are faring slightly better than men, mainly because the industries that typically employ men, such as construction, have been hit harder than those that employ women, like education and health services. Not that that’s anything to crow about, but it can’t get any worse, right?
“Women do almost as well as men today,” claims Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia University professor studying families and work, “as long as they don’t have children.” This quote comes in a recent article that explains that if you’ve taken time off to raise your kids, you’re pretty much screwed career-wise. Not only is the gap in employment history seen as a negative, a time in which you did nothing of worth, but if you do become reemployed, your earnings will never match what they would have been had you not taken time off. Women are making inroads into traditionally male-dominated fields, but at a price. As the article points out, of the last six Supreme Court nominees (half of whom were men and half women), the men were all married with families, and the women were all single and childless.
It’s not a revelation that stay-at-home moms are devalued socially and economically in American society, but it’s a problem that seems especially fraught right now, when money is an issue for many households, and a second income can make the difference. I know several women who took a year or more off to raise their children and who now seek to rejoin the workforce. But those doors are virtually closed to them. What’s more, part-time positions are in short supply, and it’s a buyer’s market. So if the only job you can get is from 9 to 6, when do you see your kids?
Given the bleak long-term economic outlook, it’s unlikely that these concerns will be dealt with anytime soon. Women’s issues—abortion is the exception—typically take a back seat in times of crisis. (For instance, during the health care–overhaul debate/debacle, Obama’s compromise to anti-abortion Democrats enraged many abortion-rights advocates, who felt that the bill’s passage came at the price of women’s rights.) But there’s reason to be hopeful. As of this week, have three women on the Supreme Court, where once there were none.