March – Women’s History Month – is mostly observed by honoring trailblazing women who helped overcome challenges, triumph against sexism, and make our country what it is today. Feminists sometimes use the occasion to highlight how women have yet to achieve economic parity with men, but we should be careful to keep the right perspective when evaluating the status of women in the modern U.S.
It’s simply not accurate to think of all women as a marginalized victim class in today’s economy. Using the right measures, facts bear this out. Furthermore, when women accurately assess our own success and opportunities, we can see women and men in cooperation, not competition.
By nearly any measure, women are advancing and achieving greater success than ever before. Not only has the sheer number of women attaining higher levels of education increased, but women have overtaken men, earning the majority of associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.
And according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the percent of working-age women participating in the workforce was 43 percent four decades ago. Today it is near 58 percent. In 2010, women comprised 47 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Modern day feminists sometimes point to the disproportionately low number of women in certain higher-paying professions, or at certain levels — i.e. corporate boardrooms — as evidence that American women still lack opportunities. They emphasize that women still have a long way to go before achieving parity with men.
But women don’t need to be equally represented in all facets of American life in order to prove that we are free and prosperous.
A better measure of women’s — and men’s — success is whether they are living the lives they want to lead, in accordance with their personal preferences. While each person is an individual, and will have individual preferences, the two sexes show substantial differences.
For example, Pew Research asked working moms if they would prefer part-time or full-time work. Fully 62 percent of working moms would prefer to work part time, compared to only 21 percent of working dads. Considering this significant difference in the two groups, it’s not surprising that we see more men climbing the ladders of careers that require full-time work.
But a more important truth is this: Comparing outcomes between men and women is simply a useless exercise. This approach tells us little about the expectations and opportunities that men and women face. And these economic comparisons represent the misguided attitude that men and women are in competition.
In reality, men and women’s interests are tied, and we want the most freedom and greatest prosperity for all of our neighbors, regardless of sex.
Instead of slicing the pie between men and women, we should focus on the state of the whole pie: When the American economy is growing and strong, both men and women benefit. Conversely, if the economy tanks, that’s bad news for us all.
In fact, perpetuating the idea that men are the economic winners and women are victims may do harm. It may encourage young women to accept the status quo as if there is nothing we – as individuals – can do to better our own circumstances.
One favorite – and often misinterpreted – statistic on women is the “wage gap,” or the disparity in average wages between men and women. According to BLS, women earn 81 percent of men’s median wages. This statistic does not take into account different fields, professions, experience levels or hours worked. It’s an average.
If we want more young women to maximize their earning potential, we should encourage them to choose higher-paying jobs, spend more time on the job, or ask for raises more frequently. Really, we should just make sure women are informed about the tradeoffs involved in these choices, and then let each woman decide.
American women are strong, empowered and capable. When we consider women’s history, we see what great obstacles women overcame to shatter glass ceilings and reach new achievements. American women – like men – will continue to overcome, to learn and to grow.
But most importantly, we will seek happiness on our own terms, we will work with – and not against – men along the way, and we will not see ourselves as helpless victims in this modern era where we are more successful and free than ever.
By Hadley Heath /// March 23, 2014