More than ninety years ago, American women earned the right to vote. Since that time, American women have gained tremendous economic and political power. Women’s record of educational achievement and innate strengths should translate into greater progress in years to come. Yet women’s progress—like all Americans’ progress—is jeopardized by our growing, Leviathan government.
Consider how prominent women have become in the workforce in recent decades: In 1975, only four in ten women worked; now, it’s six in ten. Women now constitute a majority of managers and professional workers. More than one-third of employed married women out-earn their husbands.
While our nation’s unemployment rate rose from 5.0 percent in 2008 to 9.6 percent today, women’s unemployment rate has remained consistently below men’s. As Newsweek reported, men suffered two-thirds of recent job losses, in part because women gravitate toward different sectors of the economy than men do, and male-dominated industries—such as construction, manufacturing, and financial services—have been the most affected by the recent crisis.
Some feminists lament that women self-segregate into different careers, but they can take comfort that the prospects for many female-dominated industries are bright. Health care, education, social services, and management—all heavily female—are among the sectors that Department of Labor projects will experience the greatest growth in the next decade.
Women’s bright prospects are fueled by their academic achievement. Between 1970 and 2008, the number of women in the labor force with college degrees more than tripled. Today, women earn about six in every ten bachelor degrees, which means that the pool of female workers is becoming increasingly more educated and therefore more attractive to employers.
Yes, women still lag behind men in terms of overall average earnings and positions of power in Fortune 500 businesses. Yet this says little about the opportunities women have and much more about the choices that women make. Reports show that a growing segment of women—particularly young, childless women—out-earn similarly situated men, which provides further evidence that it’s women’s behavior (not systemic sexism) that drives how much women earn. The truth is that many women simply don’t want full-time, traditionally scheduled jobs or to end up in the corner office. They crave more flexible work situations that allow them to contribute, develop personally, and earn some money while still having time for other priorities, like children.
That’s why the big government agenda being advanced in Washington is the enemy of women’s progress. Women need a growing, dynamic economy to facilitate the creation of a wide variety of working opportunities. Unfortunately, newly enacted laws discourage this kind of dynamism. The new health care law will drive up the cost of employment, which could disproportionately impact workers who don’t work full-time. The financial services bill will create new barriers to borrowing, making it more difficult for small businesses and would-be entrepreneurs to get the capital they need to start up and expand. The specter of tax increases and new rounds of regulation are adding to the uncertainty about the future business environment, further hindering growth and discouraging job creation.
While many traditional feminist groups argue in favor of greater government activism, they should be wary of granting government so much control over our economy. After all, if an old boy’s network exists, then women are likely to lose out in a political system that grants powerful politicians the ability to select winners and losers among companies and industries. And, in fact, a recent report from the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce complains that women aren’t receiving their fair share of government contracts and loans from the Small Business Administration.
Perhaps sexism isn’t at the root of these statistics, but the potential for government to favor one set of businesses over another should give feminists pause. Undoubtedly, activists at the National Organization for Women will view these numbers as grist to push specific carve-outs for women. Yet this would be equally corrupt and counter-productive. Even if some politically-connected female business leaders succeed in accessing more government funding, women overall will still be worse off in a system that rewards attributes other than efficiency and performance.
Few Americans care about the sex of the person that sells them groceries and clothes, fixes their house, or services their computer. Consumers just want high quality, good service at a low cost. For the most part, the free market is gender-blind. This is to women’s benefit, since women are perfectly capable of competing and succeeding on a level playing field.
Those who want women’s progress to continue should push for government to get out of the way of the private sector, create clear rules, and stop picking winners and losers among businesses and industries. A growing, dynamic, free economy is the key to women’s success.
Carrie Lukas is the Vice President for Policy and Economics at the Independent Women’s Forum. This is the first in a weekly fall series discussing women’s issues from the Independent Women’s Forum.