What if the revolution is over?
The question is triggered by a new White House report out Tuesday, the first comprehensive federal look at women's status since 1963.
Its statistics are familiar: the continuing wage gap, the unequal division of household chores. But it's the fact that women still lag in many areas despite all their strides that's raising concerns.
Debra Fitzpatrick, director of the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute's Center on Women and Public Policy, said it may be a significant signal that women's gains have plateaued. "We're at a real turning point of where we're going to go." For now, she said, "we're kind of stuck."
The data in the report show that young women now are more likely than young men to have a bachelor's or master's degree, and the numbers of women and men in the labor force are almost equal.
Still, wages and income remain inequitable. At all levels of education, women earned about 75 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 2009.
Among the health findings, women still live longer than men, but the gap is closing as they are more likely to face certain health problems, such as mobility impairment, arthritis, asthma, depression and obesity.
And traditional roles stick: On days that they worked outside the home, almost 9 in 10 married women also did household chores, compared with slightly more than 6 in 10 married men.
Right moves, yet not enough
"Despite women doing all the right things to gain economic parity, we're still seeing there is this tenaciousness to these issues," said Fitzpatrick. "This all points to the fact that the revolution isn't finished."
Nancy Heimer remembers applying for her first job as a certified public accountant in the late 1970s. "One of the men said, 'I've never known a woman who wanted to be a CPA, but I've known a lot of bookkeepers.'" She took the job anyway.
Today, she's a partner at Heimer Dixon Lindsey Ltd. in Minneapolis. "We've made strides, but then we've plateaued," she said of women in the workplace, recalling meetings of the American Woman's Society of Certified Public Accountants early in her career. "We'd always hear that there weren't enough women in the pipeline, that once there were, there would be more women in top positions," she said. But for years women have outnumbered men in earning public accounting degrees, and "that hasn't seemed to pan out."
Likewise, she added, the American Institute of CPA's committee on women and family issues didn't gain traction until men grew concerned about their longer hours. Renamed to address work-life initiatives, "it became more of a credible issue rather than a women's need," she said.
Still some work to do
Fitzpatrick said the White House report, "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," is useful to remind people that despite the perception that all the right things are being done, "there's nothing necessarily inevitable about parity." She noted a new study of starting salaries by gender of physicians leaving residency programs in New York from 1999 to 2008. Researchers found "a significant gender gap that cannot be explained by specialty choice, practice setting, work hours or other characteristics."
Moreover, they considered the trend "unexplained" and "growing over time." In 2008, male doctors starting out in New York State made, on average, more than $16,000 more than newly trained female doctors, compared to a $3,600 difference in 1999.
"We're at a real crux," Fitzpatrick said. "It's not sustainable for women to continue to shoulder the excessive burdens. It shows up in mental health data, the dropping-out syndrome, in younger women saying, 'I'm just not going to do that superwoman thing.'"
Heimer raised a similar point. "In fairness to other women," she said, "what is the interest level or desire to be at the top? Do women really care as much as men? What satisfies me in my position is the relationship I have with my clients."
The data in the White House report will figure into how individuals, families, workplaces and governments address issues of women's well-being, socially as well as economically. It's possible, Fitzpatrick said, that people may decide that equity no longer is a goal, "that maybe we're good enough."
"But if you think it matters that people are getting paid equally for the same work, if a piece of the American dream is that equal effort should result in equal economic opportunity, then these studies point out there's still some work to do."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185