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This article appeared in Left Business Observer #65, August 1994. It was written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Women working

It's known to virtually everyone but Phil Gramm and Wall Street Journal editorialists that the middle income ranks have been thinning in the U.S. for well over a decade, to swell the extremes of rich and poor. But this picture is just an average, and as is often the case with averages, there's lots of action hidden under its surface.

In a soundbite, men have been doing the hollowing out, while women have been filling in. The charts at the center of this page, which are based on data presented in an article by Paul Ryscavage in the July 1994 Monthly Labor Review (published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS]), clearly show two contradictory trends. Between 1979 and 1992, the share of men earning middle-level wages defined in the chart caption fell from 53% to 45%, while the share of women falling into the same group rose from 27% to 38%. While men were leaving the middle, they filled the two extremes. The share of women earning the lowest pay stayed flat, however, while the next-lowest category shrank, and the middle and upper two ranks expanded. In other words, for men, the experience was one of polarization; for women, upscaling.

Ryscavage's article features the changes between 1979 and 1989, because both years were late in business cycle expansions, just before the onset of a slump, while 1992 data reflects the 199091 recession. This is the scholarly thing to do. Journalism, however, demands maximum up-to-dateness, which is why the 1992 figures are shown here. In deference to scholarly precision, it should be said that the recession had little impact on the distribution of male earnings, while the upscaling continued among women.

Two lines diverged

Several other stories lurk behind the gender averages. The hardest-hit group of all and here Ryscavage's figures cover only 1979 to 1989 was men in their 20s with a high school education or less; in 1979, 44% of them were middle earners, but 10 years later, only 28% of men in their 20s were. Women in their 20s with college or more, however, went from 38% middle-earners in 1979 to 53% in 1989. Older men (aged 3054) with high school educations saw a general downscaling over the decade, while women saw a general upscaling (except that the share earning the lowest pay rose). For older men with college or more, polarization was the rule, but for women, upward mobility was.

One of the major reasons for these gender disparities is that women's wages have been rising steadily since 1980, while men's wages peaked in the early 1970s, and have been trending raggedly downward ever since (see chart). This trend holds across all educational categories.

Sectoral differences account for a great deal of the gender differences in wage growth. Between 1979 and 1989, men lost 339,000 jobs in manufacturing, generally a well-paying sector, and gained 5.3 million jobs in the service industries. But almost half the men's service gains were in the lower-paying industries like retail trade (including bars and restaurants), personal services, and recreation.

Men with high-school or less were particularly affected by this shift, moving from middle-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying service industries.

Women gained 534,000 manufacturing jobs, and mainly middle- and high-paying ones at that though the gainers were mainly better-educated women; the less-educated hardly thrived, but they still did better than their male peers. Not only did women do better in manufacturing, their service sector gains were concentrated in higher-paying areas like transportation, communication, utilities, finance, government, and the professions: over 5 million in the better-paying industries, twice the 2.4 million gain in the low-paying ones.

Data slicing

Ryscavage's study covers only full-time, year-round workers. Women are less likely than men to work full-time (for more, see the catalog of continuing gender gaps at the end of this piece). But similar trends are visible no matter how you slice the data.

Start with the smallest unit: hourly pay. In 1979, women's hourly pay was 64% of men's (for full-time workers); in 1993, it was 80%. Of course, fewer employed women work full-time than men, most by choice; in 1993, one in twelve men told BLS surveyors that they worked part-time by choice, compared with one in five women though this official notion of choice may not fully convey the necessities of child care and housework, tasks that remain the disproportionate domain of women. (By contrast, last year an average of 2.8% of employed men and 4.6% of women wanted full-time work but could only find part-time positions.) Yet even this gap is narrowing; in 1967, 50% of adult men were employed year-round and full-time, and 20% of women; in 1992, 47% of men and 32% of women were. Or looked at a different way, in 1960, just 24% of all year-round, full-time workers were women; in 1992, 41% were.

In LBO #60, it was noted that recessions are typically harder on men than women, mainly because slumps hit manufacturing harder than service industries. Another article in the July MLR, this by William Goodman, makes the point that the recessionrecovery period is when many of the long-term, structural changes discussed here are concentrated. In every one of the last 5 business cycles (197071, 197476, 198081, 198183, and 199093), men have lost far more many jobs than women in the downswing, and women have gained more jobs than men on the upswing.

Though the recent cycle was atypical in several ways the service sector was hit harder than usual, and the snapback in employment on the upswing was much weaker the pattern still held. From the June 1990 peak in total employment through the February 1992 trough, men lost 2 million jobs, while women gained 124,000. That gain in female employment was interrupted by a slight dip during late 1990 and early 1991, but quickly recovered. Between the February 1992 trough and May 1994, the most recent month available, women gained 2.5 million jobs, and men 2.4 million. Men did not recover all the jobs lost in the recession until March of this year, and were less than half a million ahead of that peak as of May but women's employment is up over 2.6 million since mid-1990, over six times as much as men's.

A buck of one's own

Women's improving fortunes in the labor market are an important part of a bigger story their increasing economic independence. The broadest measure of this is the fact that almost all women now have money to call their own be it salary, investment income, alimony, or welfare. In 1967, 92% of adult men had some kind of income, and just 64% of women; in 1992, 95% of men did, and 91% of women and over the same period, the income of all women with some kind of cash inflow rose from 32% of men's to 52%.

Though 52% is a lot higher than 32%, it's still a long way from 100%. None of what appears on these pages should be construed as saying that the sexes are now equal, or that women no longer experience discrimination, or that paid work is entirely liberating as long as women bear primary responsibility for housework and childcare especially if the work is alienating, dangerous, and low-paying. In married-couple households with both spouses working full time, men do about 1012 hours of unpaid work around the house every week, compared with 3035 for women. Men are doing a bit more work around the house than they used to, but that three-to-one gap is nothing less than chasmish. Adult women are far more likely than men to be below the official poverty line, with a risk ranging from a third higher than men for middle-aged whites to twice as high for young black adults. Occupational segregation and discrimination persist, too. While women have entered previously "male" fields like law, medicine, management, and banking, better-paying blue collar jobs like construction remain largely male, and traditionally "female" jobs like nursing, elementary school teaching, and secretaries remain almost exclusively female. Women are still paid less than men for the same work, face countless barriers to hiring and promotion, and face too countless immeasurable injuries, ranging from petty, patronizing slights to painful intellectual and sexual harassments.

But this transformation of economic relations between the sexes is behind many other lamented and/or lamentable phenomena, ranging from the unraveling of the nuclear family to the popularity of Rush Limbaugh. Insofar as the traditional family was held together by women's economic dependence on men, their growing independence is unmasking previously hidden fissures in the structure. And the popularity among men of heated denunciations of feminazis and welfare moms has to depend importantly on the waning of male privilege. It's sad that the dethroning of men has taken such a toll on the least privileged rather than the most, but somehow that's not much of a surprise.

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