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Women in a weak economy

By Kelley Atherton

I'm not sure what wave of feminism we're on now, but there's still disagreement on whether women are equal in the workplace.

I was intrigued by a series of letters to the editor in the The New York Times about a front-page article claiming women were feeling a hit from the economy equal to that of men.

The letters said the opposite. The letter writers said there remains a disparity in pay and opportunities for women, especially minorities. Therefore, they are being hit harder by the weak economy.

I started thinking about whether women have actually achieved that place in the workforce. That place where women-owned businesses fail at the same rate of male-owned businesses. Men and women are able to succeed and fail with no biases.

I can hear the male argument now: of course men and women are failing at the same rate. The economy doesn't care about one's gender. Then why are women leaving the workforce?

Is the economy gender-blind or are women finding it harder to bounce back this time around?

According to the Times article, a the Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that since 1960, at the end of every economic recovery there were more women working than before. Now, they're not returning.

"Indeed, for the first time since the women's movement came to life, an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen."

The thing is, men are also leaving the workforce. Let's compare:

About 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 were working in 2000. In June 2008, that percentage had tumbled to almost 73 percent. That seemingly small difference represents 4 million women.

The number of men punching in and out five days a week has declined from 96 percent in 1953 (the peak year) to 86 percent today.

One could say, well maybe more women have decided to have babies or stay at home with their children. That is true for some women, but I beg to differ because so many households rely on two incomes nowadays.

One letter brought up the common argument that women are already disadvantaged in the workforce and have always "lagged well behind in good times and bad."

She emphasized this point by explaining that women are paid 77 cents for each dollar a man makes. The pay is on average even worse for African-American women, who earn 62 cents, and Hispanics, who earn 53 cents.

The letters all addressed the issue of unfair policies that don't provide adequate sick leave, child care, living wages and benefits. This causes many women to be unemployed, go back to school (which doesn't guarantee a job, as one letter pointed out) or decide to stay home with children. In short, women are not getting a fair chance to survive during tough times.

One letter summed it up nicely:

"We need Congress to pass legislation mandating paid family and medical leave and paid sick days and to restore fair pay laws. Until it does, women and families will continue to suffer, and our country will lose out on the talents of half its citizens."

As far as our community goes, I think the women of Del Norte County deserve a pat on the back. From what I've experienced writing about local businesses, I've met a plethora of women that are business savvy, have high ambitions and are trucking through these tough times.

Let's just hope it stays that way and our government continues to provide a level playing field for men and women.

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