Monday, January 11, 2010

Female power rise poses challenges

The Economist says that the gradual women empowerment in the last 50 years, though a welcome development for both sexes, have brought social consequences that will be the challenge of the next 50 years.

Hillary Clinton noted that her 18M votes in the primaries represent 18M cracks (pun intended?) in the ceiling. Women now make up half of the work force in many economies. In the other economies where it is not, the ratio of women in the work force is rising.

How did this come about? Politics (feminism) brought governments to pass equal-rights laws. Economics and technology also did their share. The demand for brain power grew as the world entered the post-industrialized era.

Demand has been matched by supply: women are increasingly willing and able to work outside the home. Women now have more time to work as the time for traditional traditional female work of cleaning and cooking was reduced by better technology at home. Additionally, the contraceptive pill and family planning became widely accepted. The pill has not only allowed women to get married later, it has also increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills.

But the men still dominate the upper ranks of management. In America and Britain the typical full-time female worker earns only about 80% as much as the typical male. The article says prejudice may be the key but there is a deeper reason why this is so: many women are forced to choose between motherhood and careers. Childless women earn almost as much as men, but mothers with partners earn less and single mothers much less. The cost of motherhood is steep for women. Child rearing deprives the women of the time to gain the professional experience/education that they could have. The reason for the income gap may thus be the opposite of prejudice. It is that women are judged by exactly the same standards as men.

This Hobson's choice is imposes a high cost on both individuals and society. Many professional women reject motherhood entirely. Others delay child-bearing for so long that they later resort to fertility clinics. Some may opt not to work at all, thus depleting the collective investment in talent. But a choice must be made. Studies found out that, years after graduation, just over half of those who had chosen to have children were working full-time. About a quarter were working part-time and just under a quarter had left the labor force. Almost all of women who left work to have children want to return to work. But only 74% managed to return, and just 40% returned to full-time jobs.

While making women work leaves too little time for their children, this trend will continue. The rising cost of living and the empowered women's mind makes this a necessity. In the west child care takes a sizable portion of the family budget, and many childminders are untrained. The private sector can make more women-friendly and family-friendly work environments. Governments can make school hours coincide with working hours so the children can be at school while their parents work. But quitting work to look after the children can mean financial disaster.

This is where the Philippines' extended family system come in handy. Our extended family and the practice of grandparents staying with the family afford working moms to have caretakers for the children.

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