Old gender stereotypes die hard – including the idea that men are the family’s primary breadwinners, and any money women bring in is just something “extra”, perhaps a little pin money; but women’s primary job (without pay) is keeping a home and raising the children. Considering that poor women and women of color have always worked outside of the home – whether by force or by necessity – it’s unlikely this stereotype was ever much more than that. An aspiration of the growing middle class that had moved off the farm (which required the labor of everyone in the family) and into the suburbs post-WWII, perhaps; and endlessly promoted by the families of television’s early sitcoms. But if we question how true that stereotype was in the past, it definitely is not the reality in North Carolina in 2014. Almost 60% of North Carolina women are in the workforce. and over 40% of them are the primary breadwinners for their family. Not all of those families are headed by single mothers; but of those families that are, 44% of them are living in poverty, with a 2010 median income of $20,393. Families headed by single mothers are more likely to live in poverty than any other family type in North Carolina**.
Women as workers face many of the same issues working men are facing in today’s still-struggling economy: stagnant wages; lack of sustainable employment opportunities; being overqualified for the many service/retail jobs that are being created or not financially able to obtain a college degree that many entry-level white-collar jobs require today. Women as workers also have unique issues to deal with. As the family’s primary caretaker – still – of both young children and aging parents (and disabled/ill relatives in between), women never had the luxury of even a stereotype that has them plopping on the couch with a drink and TV show after a long day at work, while someone else takes care of the kids and gets dinner ready. Women are working both inside and outside of the home, and in addition to the added stress of near-constant work and lack of time to oneself, women are also more likely to require additional flexibility on the job then men due to their caretaking duties. Children don’t get sick on a set schedule, and daycares frown on parents who finally get there after closing to pick up their kids because they couldn’t leave that work meeting that went way over schedule (which may well have accomplished nothing, but requires employees’ presence just the same). Despite the fact that many women are working both on the clock and off, the fact that they can’t drop all responsibilities to burn the midnight oil at the office is seen as a lack of loyalty and productivity to the company. And they suffer as workers for that perception.
The reality is that we are not so much a family-friendly society as we are committed to promoting the interests of big business (although a case can be made that investing in families and communities does increase the business bottom line). Paid sick days/maternity leave/family leave and ideas like job-sharing are immediately struck down as too costly for business, ignoring the costs more workers are bearing for their employment, including the rising cost of quality child care (in North Carolina, about equivalent to a year’s worth of college at a state school), increasing cost-sharing for health benefits, and the costs of higher ed needed for an increasing number of jobs**. Many employers even charge their employees for parking. All while wages have remained stagnant. This steadfast refusal to acknowledge there are other ways to do business beyond a model that assumes workers have no other obligations except to the job leaves women clustered in “pink collar” work and part-time work, both of which suffer from low wages, lack of benefits and decreased opportunities for advancement.
Add to this the gender pay gap, difficulties getting back into paid employment after taking time off to raise kids and the sexual harassment and discrimination that still occurs on the job, and we’ll see that women are facing a lot of unique barriers to sustainable and secure employment. But women are still in the workforce in large numbers, and (I believe) plenty of companies see value in hiring women. The idea that women can continue to be marginalized in the workforce is just not a reality.
Contrary to what many would have us believe, women with children who either stay home to care for their children or go back to work to make money are doing what they feel is best for their family at that moment. And if we are truly a family-friendly society, we will support these choices with more than hollow words about the sanctity of motherhood. In North Carolina, that means reinstating the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In the NCGA’s slash and burn budget session in 2013, North Carolina became the first state in 30 years to get rid of this credit. A tax credit for earned income, it’s a proven tool for lifting families out of poverty at a time when they just need some extra help. Like plenty of other tax credits, it’s not a handout, it’s an investment – in our families, our communities and our future – and it needs to be reinstated.
Don’t just take my word for it: watch NCWU Director at Large Kara Davies’ story about how the EITC helped her through a tough time. We thank Kara for generously sharing her story so that it may help others.
Tara Romano, President, NC Women United