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Report Watch: White House Report on Women Reveals Need for New Infrastructure of Work

By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Office of Management and Budget and the Economics and Statistics Administration within the Department of Commerce released a new report on the status of women in the United States. The findings underscore a problem evolved employers have long recognized – while there are plenty of capable, intelligent young women in the pipeline to leadership, they’re not staying in the game long enough to reach leadership levels.

According to the report young women are outpacing young men at almost every level of educational attainment. By 2019, women are expected to represent 60% of college enrollment. The number of women in graduate programs has long surpassed the number of men. And “ between 1997 and 2007, the increase in female full-time graduate students was nearly double that of males.” Girls’ performance in math and science, while currently lower than boys’, is steadily improving as well.

Yet for all these gains, women are still not breaking through to the top levels of companies. As Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, said at a recent National Council for Research on Women event, “My generation has not achieved anything close to equity. Women in their 20s and 30s are dropping out of the pipeline at roughly the same rates as my generation did.”

Most companies have still not attained anywhere close to gender parity when it comes to leadership. And women are still not being compensated equally to men. The new White House report shows that young women are getting it right. Where we’re going wrong for women is work – more specifically, the workplace.

The Stats on Women at Work

According to the report, the number of women in the workforce has risen significantly since the 1950s, with 61% of adult women working (compared with 75% of adult men). Additionally, the number of working moms has risen considerably since 1975. According to the report:

“From 1975 to 2000, the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under age 18 rose from 47 percent to a peak of 73 percent. This rate receded to about 71 percent in 2004, where it has remained through 2009. Unmarried mothers had a higher labor force participation rate than their married counterparts, 76 percent compared to 70 percent in 2009.”

Companies are clearly making it easier for working mothers. But not easy enough. The rate of mothers “opting out” or being pushed out of the workforce during their late 20s and 30s has remained the same for decades. Women traditionally take on a larger share of family and household responsibilities, so it’s no surprise that are leaving the workforce at the age when most have their first or second child.

According to the report, in families where both parents work, women tend to do significantly more housework than males. According to the report, “employed married women spent 1.6 hours in household activities and an additional hour caring for household members. In contrast, employed married men spent nearly one hour in household activities and about 40 minutes caring for household members.” At the same time, “employed husbands spent about 3.2 hours engaged in leisure and sports activities on workdays, and employed wives spent about 2.7 hours.”

Working women are doing more at home than working men, and enjoying less leisure time.

Flex-Work Can Benefit Everyone

If it is indeed the pressure of managing work along with the bulk of home responsibilities that is causing women to leave the workforce (while facing the fact that they’re making less money than their male counterparts for the same work and seeing few role models at the top), employers should find ways to keep women on board – especially considering the amount of resources they spend on the recruiting, training, and development of new employees. Improving the workplace infrastructure around work/life fit is something Evolved Employer has long called for.

According to the White House report:

“In May 2004, about 30 percent of wage and salary workers reported having flexible schedules that allowed them to vary their work hours to some degree. Between 1985 and 2004, the proportions of employed men and women able to vary their work hours were about equal; the same was true of both mothers and fathers who work.”

We can probably assume that numbers have risen past 30% since 2004. But the Department of Labor is recognizing that workplaces need to change if we are to fully utilize the skills and abilities of half of the population. At such a challenging time, when fresh voices and viewpoints are sorely needed in the workforce, companies can’t afford to alienate working women.

As U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently said at the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau Conference in California, “Employers need to know that there are tools out there… It’s a balance, having that competitive edge and work-life fit.”

Keeping significant numbers of women in the workforce past their 30s is a challenge employers across the US need to contend with. Building a workforce infrastructure that works for women, enabling them to work from home, telework, and build flexible schedules, will be the greatest challenge – and opportunity – for employers going into the next decade.

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