While headlines have been fixed firmly on unemployment and Wall Street, a new era in the economy has been quietly ushered in.
Half of all workers in the United States are women, according to a recent report by California first lady Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.
In 1961, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt headed an official inquiry into the status of women in America. The final report stated that the most accepted role for women was in the home, but also that the climate of opinion is turning against the idea that homemaking is the only form of feminine achievement.
Today, only one in five families still conform to the traditional model of a male breadwinner and female homemaker. Fully two-thirds of mothers work to support their families and 40 percent are the primary breadwinners of the family.
This marks a milestone in what has been a steady reorganization of the family, the basic unit of American society.
But, our domestic policies and employers are still lagging far behind.
We are the only major industrialized nation without comprehensive child care and family leave policies. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows for 12 weeks of unpaid family or medical leave, but it only covers half of all workers. Women are often forced to take sick days or vacation days to give birth. Men, who increasingly share in the child-rearing duties, also struggle to get the necessary time off.
Some employers have realized the value of adopting family-friendly policies. Women represent half of all available talent, and recent research has shown companies that work to incorporate women in their workforce actually improve their bottom line. Employers that fail to adapt to the modern family risk losing good workers both women and men.
Nevertheless, women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, despite holding an increasing number of managerial positions and earning 60 percent of all college degrees and half of all advanced degrees.
I grew up in a family where both of my parents worked full time. My mother took time off from work to raise my siblings and me, but it affected her career. She had to find new jobs instead of returning to the ones she left, and never achieved the advancement that my father did.
Once she went back to work, my siblings and I became just a few in a large population of latchkey kids in my neighborhood and across the country. We spent much of our childhoods in private daycare and after-school programs to keep us out of trouble until our parents got off work to pick us up.
Women’s entrance to the workforce in such numbers is arguably the most fundamental change our society has ever seen. Juvenile delinquency, drug use, teen pregnancies and the millions of latchkey kids like me will continue to increase if we fail to appreciate the change society is undergoing.
As a society, we need to decide whether we value the sacrifice women and men must make to raise our nation’s children. Politicians talk about family values, but it is not apparent that they actually value the family in its present form. Our labor policies, social security and even our tax code all need to be redesigned with the modern family in mind.
For all of you future (and present) mothers and fathers, bosses and executives, understand that the workplace and society have changed, for the better. Workplaces are more diverse, families are enjoying dual incomes and men have more opportunities to be involved in their children’s lives.
However, we need to revise outdated policies in order to nurture the new American family.
Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.