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Tackling the losses that offset the gains of Maryland's women


Maryland women have it good -- and bad. While more of them are getting college degrees and professional jobs, more also are single mothers living in poverty, says a report released last month by the Maryland Commission for Women, in conjunction with the University of Maryland.

Esther Weisman, a commission member who directs a YWCA employment training program in Glen Burnie, said the report will arm policy-makers with information that can help women and children.

It showed that the poverty rate for households headed by females was three times higher than for all families and that two-thirds of women with children under age 6 were working outside the home. Both figures were higher than commission members expected.

The "Profile of Maryland Women: 1980-1990," compared federal census data to find that female-headed families increased from 16.2 percent in 1980 to 18.2 percent in 1990 and disproportionately for black women.

Other findings: The proportion of female college graduates increased by nearly 50 percent, and more women moved into executive and managerial positions. But 40 percent of working women remained in sales and secretarial positions.

Ms. Weisman said the gains are good, but most women have a long way to go.

Q: What is significant about the growing rate of single mothers in poverty?

A: It puts a lot of our children in poverty. It means health-wise, certainly, they may not be covered with health care, aside from all the other things. The opportunities that they're going to have in their lives are going to be restricted.

Families headed by single mothers are the poorest. Six percent of families are under the poverty level across the state. But 21 percent of families headed by women are under this poverty line. For female-headed households with children under 18, 29 percent are under the poverty line.

It's not a surprise. It's just that here it is, in black and white.

Single mothers are the people who would be in lower-paying jobs, for the most part. It's the vicious cycle thing. There's not a whole lot of hope, and there's not a whole lot you're going to be offering the children, so you're kind of repeating that.

Q: Shouldn't there be a trickle-down effect from the women who are making gains in education and jobs?

A: The poor stay poor, and the rich stay rich, unless something intervenes. Single mothers have to have access to child care. They have to get training. You can't climb the ladder if you haven't gotten on it.

Women are making gains in higher-status occupations, but still almost 50 percent of employed women are in the lower-paying positions -- the sales or administrative or service positions which pay much much less.

Q: How can women catch up on the economic ladder?

A: What we need is more gender-neutral education at an early stage so that women develop more self-esteem and don't limit themselves to what they do.

That's difficult, because speaking to teachers, you realize that when you get a young woman who's really ready to go, you find most of the time that the family provides a lot of that. So it's a combination.

L Q: What are the self-limiting things girls do? Get pregnant?

A: Well, yes. But more generally, they don't consider all the things they can do. They don't think about going to college. It's increasing, but nonetheless, [many girls in their teens] are not thinking so long-term about careers, and yet they work.

Sixty-three percent of women are working, but they usually have not given that a lot of thought.

In all probability, you'll be working most of your life, so you better think about what you want to do with that.

Q: Are girls still growing up with the expectation that they'll be supported by a man?

A: I hate to say that, but I think they're not encouraged either by education or our society to think about their careers. And yet, most women work.

Whether it's in a low-paying job and they can do a whole lot more, or whether they become a rocket scientist, they are going to be working. Economically, that's the way it is.

Q: What will this report do for women?

A: The document itself is meant to be a reference guide for people concerned with the status of women and who deal with women.

The roles of women have changed. Certainly since 1980, more women are working, and more women with children are working. Their occupations have changed.

An agency like mine might look at the poverty levels in their own particular county [to see, for example] whether training or child care would be needed. In some cases, it would be more education. But for communities, vital planning would depend on them looking at these kinds of things.

Q: Were there statistics you wanted, but which this report couldn't give you because of the limitations of what is on the census computer tapes?

A: The way the data was presented, you couldn't find out more information separately about the near-poor -- the most economically vulnerable people. If 50 percent of women are in the lowest-paying occupations, a lot of them are out there. They're barely making it, and any catastrophe could push them under.

Q: Who is watching the children of all these women who are working?

A: The report itself doesn't speak to that, but we know child care is a problem. And when we know that now two-thirds of working women have children under a certain age, certainly that has to increase the need for child care.

So our concern should be not only to increase child care, but that it be good child care.

Frequently, people have to rely on relatives for child care and that can be wonderful, but frequently it's not the best place. You have to rely on what you can get.

It's not a straight run for women sometimes, to just get the education and get a start in their career and keep going.

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