NY Times, March 2, 2006
Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work
By EDUARDO PORTER
For four decades, the number of women entering the workplace grew at a
blistering pace, fostering a powerful cultural and economic
transformation of American society. But since the mid-1990's, the
growth in the percentage of adult women working outside the home has
stalled, even slipping somewhat in the last five years and leaving it
at a rate well below that of men.
While the change has been under way for a while, it was initially
viewed by many experts as simply a pause in the longer-term movement
of women into the work force. But now, social scientists are engaged
in a heated debate over whether the gender revolution at work may be
Is this shift evidence for the popular notion that many mothers are
again deciding that they prefer to stay at home and take care of their
Maybe, but many researchers are coming to a different conclusion:
women are not choosing to stay out of the labor force because of a
change in attitudes, they say. Rather, the broad reconfiguration of
women's lives that allowed most of them to pursue jobs outside the
home appears to be hitting some serious limits.
Since the 1960's, tens of millions of women rejiggered bits of their
lives, extracting more time to accommodate jobs and careers from every
nook and cranny of the day. They married later and had fewer children.
They turned to labor-saving machines and paid others to help handle
household work; they persuaded the men in their lives to do more
At the peak in 2000, some 77 percent of women in the prime ages of 25
to 54 were in the work force.
Further changes, though, have been proving harder to achieve,
stretching the daily challenge facing many mothers at nearly all
income levels toward a breaking point.
"What happened on the road to gender equality?" said Suzanne M.
Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. "A lot of work
Consider Cathie Watson-Short, 37, a former business development
executive at high-technology companies in Silicon Valley. She pines to
go back to work, but has not figured out how to mesh work with caring
for her three daughters.
"Most of us thought we would work and have kids, at least that was
what we were brought up thinking we would do =97 no problem," Ms.
Watson-Short said. "But really we were kind of duped. None of us
realized how hard it is."
Professor Bianchi, who studies time-use surveys done by the Census
Bureau and others, has concluded that contrary to popular belief, the
broad movement of women into the paid labor force did not come at the
expense of their children. Not only did fathers spend more time with
children, but working mothers, she found, spent an average of 12 hours
a week on child care in 2003, an hour more than stay-at-home mothers
did in 1975.
Instead, mothers with children at home gained the time for outside
work by taking it from other parts of their day. They also worked more
over all. Professor Bianchi found that employed mothers, on average,
worked at home and on the job a total of 15 hours more a week and
slept 3.6 fewer hours than those who were not employed.
"Perhaps time has been compressed as far as it will go," she
suggested. "Kids take time, and work takes time. The conflicts didn't
Indeed, the research suggests that women may have already hit a wall
in the amount of work that they can pack into a week. From 1965 to
1995, Professor Bianchi found, the average time mothers spent doing
paid work jumped to almost 26 hours a week from 9 hours. The time
spent on housework fell commensurately, to 19 hours from 32.
Then the trend stalled. From 1995 to 2003, mothers, on average, spent
about the same amount of time on household chores, but their work
outside the home fell by almost four hours a week.
"Looking toward the future," said Francine D. Blau, a professor of
economics at Cornell University, "one can question how much further
increases in women's participation can be had without more
reallocation of household work."
This is having broad repercussions for the economy. Today, about 75
percent of women 25 to 54 years old are either working or actively
seeking a job, up from around 40 percent in the late 1950's. That
expansion helped fuel economic growth for decades.
But the previous trend flattened in the early 1990's. And since 2000,
the participation rate for women has declined somewhat; it remains far
below the 90 percent rate for men in the same age range.
There is one big exception to the trend: while the rate of labor
participation leveled off for most groups of women, the percentage of
single mothers in the work force jumped to more than 75 percent from
63 percent. That of high school dropouts rose to 53 percent from 48
Economists say that these women were pushed into work with the help of
changes in government policy: the expansion of the earned-income tax
credit and the overhaul of welfare in the mid-1990's, which replaced
long-term entitlements with temporary aid.
To be sure, mothers' overcrowded lives have not been the only factor
limiting their roles in the work force. The decline in participation
rates for most groups of women since the recession of 2001 at least
partly reflects an overall slowdown in hiring, which affected men and
women roughly equally.
"The main reason for women's declining labor-force participation rates
over the last four years was the weakness of the labor market," said
Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy
Research, a liberal research institute in Washington. "Women did not
opt out of the labor force because of the kids."
But even if the recent decline was driven more by economic factors,
other experts note that the leveling off began well before the
economic slump a few year ago. And whatever the mixture of causes, the
changing pace of women's participation in the work force has recently
risen to the top of the agenda among scholars and policy makers.
A report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, presented to
Congress in February, contended that the slowdown in the rate of women
moving into the workplace, was weighing on the nation's potential for
"The new factor at play," the report said, "is the change in the trend
in the female participation rate, which has edged down on balance
since 2000 after having risen for five decades."
Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University, said in
a keynote speech to the annual meeting of the American Economic
Association in Boston in January that the trend across nearly all
groups of women had "led many to wonder if a 'natural rate' of labor
force participation has been reached."
A broad set of social and economic forces pushed women into the work
force. From the 1960's onward, women flooded into higher education and
began to marry later.
Professor Goldin said that a typical female college graduate born in
the mid-1960's married at 26, three years later than the typical
female college graduate born in the early 1950's.
This alone had large-scale implications for women's ability to work.
Many families delayed the arrival of their first child. Today, only
about 43 percent of women 25 to 29 have children under 6, compared
with about 71 percent of women in that group in the 1960's.
Chinhui Juhn, an economics professor at the University of Houston,
pointed out that women in their mid-to-late 20's accounted for most of
the increase in work force participation from 1970 onward. But now,
she said, "the increase in participation of women in their prime
child-bearing years is largely over."
Women's participation in the labor force is being restrained by a side
effect of delayed motherhood: a jump in 30-something mothers with
"The childbirth effects are coming later," said Janice Madden, a
sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
By 2004, about 37 percent of women ages 33 to 37 had children under 6,
compared with 28 percent in 1979.
At midcareer, these women had to deal with more child care chores.
"There have been a lot more household responsibilities in this group,"
Professor Goldin, the Harvard economist, said. "The fact that their
participation rate has not declined much is what is surprising =97 not
that there is a plateau."
Most women, even those with young children, need to work. Many more
want to. Ms. Watson-Short, the former California executive who is now
a mother of three, said that her stay-at-home-mom friends, like her,
felt blindsided by the demands of motherhood.
"They had a totally different idea of where they would be," Ms.
Watson-Short said. "They thought they would be in the workplace and
have someone help them raise the kids."
But those who kept working are also torn. Catherine Stallings, 34,
returned to her job in the communications department of New York
University's medical center last month because she could not afford
not to. Dealing with work and her 5-month-old daughter, Riley, has
been stressful for her and her husband, the marketing director of a
"Usually, we are so tired we pass out around 10 or so," Ms. Stallings
said. "And my job is not a career-track job. If I were climbing the
ladder, it would be a no-win situation."
Some economists argue that it is premature to conclude that the gender
revolution in the workplace has reached its limit.
Yet for the participation rates of women to rise significantly, they
agree, mothers may have to give up more of the household burden.
Professor Blau of Cornell noted that in Scandinavian countries, where
laws provide for more generous parental leave and subsidize day care,
women have higher rates of labor participation than in the United
Ms. Watson-Short, whose husband is a patent lawyer, expects to go back
to some sort of paid work but sees a full-time job as well off in the
future. Making the transition back into the work force, even through
part-time jobs, will not be as easy as she and her contemporaries once
"We got equality at work," Ms. Watson-Short said. "We really didn't
get equality at home."