As the year ends, and it seems that half the world is looking back, a story on women in the work force from The Economist is food for thought. In most of the "rich" countries, more than half of women are in the labour force--in Canada the figure was 62.8 per cent in 2008--while young women overall make up more than half the students enrolled in post-secondary programs. This is a major worldwide change that has happened without much "friction," even though it affects the most "intimate aspects of people’s identities."
The reasons are many, the article says. The Feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s was a factor, but so was the change in the nature of work: "When brute strength mattered more than brains, men had an inherent advantage. Now that brainpower has triumphed the two sexes are more evenly matched."
That's an interesting point, but I have a few quibbles with other points made. The website doesn't say who wrote the story, but I'd guess young men had a large hand in it because of the way it treats the effect of the contraceptive pill. Being able to control fertility easily, safely and independently has "allowed women to get married later," the story says, and has "increased their incentives to invest time and effort in acquiring skills, particularly slow-burning skills ... The knowledge that they would not have to drop out of, say, law school to have a baby made law school more attractive."
Pardon me? The contraceptive revolution is much wider than that, for one thing. And the idea that babies and law school--or other fields of endeavor--can't be managed in a lifetime is absurd. Women can, and do, particularly where they have support from their society. What is needed is a societal committment to children: to good schools, daycare and parental (not just maternal) leave. The reasons to do so are not just ones of fairness and equity, but of concern for the future economy. Any discussion of an impending post-Baby Boom "age crisis" should remember that in the 1950s, the ratio of dependent to active workers was low because so many women were not part of the labour force. We will need women's brains and skills in the future as an ageing population means proportionately fewer active labour force members.
There's another point that must not be forgotten, particularly as governments start grumbling about cutting back, now that the worse of the Crisis of 2008 is over: wages in the 1950s were high enough for a middle or working class family to live on one income. That clearly is not the case now. Because we have allowed the erosion of earning power we must take up the slack in providing services for families so that women can work, children can thrive and the men who love them are not exhausted by responsiblity.