WASHINGTON -- Diana Furchgott-Roth is a soft-spoken, diminutive lady of gentle manners and fine, British-bred elocution. But this mother of five is also a rigorous economist (American Enterprise Institute, President Bush's Office of Policy Planning) who, together with historian Christine Stolba, has published the definitive monograph on the position of women in the American economy. Its title? "Women's Figures."
From now on, whenever matters like the "glass ceiling" or the "wage gap" are mentioned in the press, it will be journalistic malpractice not to call Ms. Furchgott-Roth, or at least consult her study.
Far from pathetic victims of continuing male discrimination, Ms. Furchgott-Roth and Ms. Stolba paint a picture of women as highly successful participants in the national economy, sometimes even at the expense of men. Women now earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor's degrees conferred in the United States -- and have done so since 1982. Women have also taken more than 50 percent of master's degrees since 1981. In 1996, women composed 54 percent of the entering class at Yale Medical School.
As one would expect, enhanced education has led directly to higher wages. While it's true that the average of all women's wages is still lower than the average of all men's wages (the so-called wage gap), that is a very uninformative statistic. It fails to account for important factors like consecutive years at a job, education level, age, full or part-time work, union status and public or private-sector employment. When you control for all of those factors, women earn almost identical wages to men.
In the past decade alone, the number of female vice-presidents has more than doubled, and female senior vice-presidents have increased by 75 percent.
Talk of a wage gap ignores historical perspective. Women have been moving into business and the professions in huge numbers for the past 30 years. It is not surprising therefore that among senior executives in their 50s, the numbers of women are still relatively small. But the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth compared people aged 27 to 33 who had never had a child and found that women earned 98 percent of men's wages. A study of engineering and economics Ph.Ds found similar results.
What glass-ceiling and wage-gap advocates cannot believe or understand is that women frequently make career choices that involve accepting lower wages because they want to spend time with their young children. Lawyers on the partnership track typically put in 60-hour weeks. Many gifted and successful women are not willing to do that when they have young children at home.
One of the things women do to accommodate their families is start their own businesses -- which they are doing at twice the rate of men. In 1972, there were only 400,000 women-owned businesses in the United States. Today, there are 8 million, employing 15.5 million people and generating $1.4 trillion in sales.
The image of a male-dominated, stodgy, unwelcoming American economy that only reluctantly permits women to make gains in a "pink ghetto" is belied by "Women's Figures." Since the 1970s, women have been barreling through the American economy at every level. Female labor-force participation was 26 percent in 1940. It was 59 percent in 1995. More than 70 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 54 are in the labor force. Women political candidates are just as likely to win open seats as men. And women are more likely to earn graduate degrees than men.
Ms. Furchgott-Roth and Ms. Stolba have more than proved their point. Equality of opportunity for women is a fact. Women are taking (and making) market opportunities every day. They have filed out of homemaking and into money-making in huge numbers.
"Women's Figures" should be required reading in all women's-studies courses -- with one caveat. The story of women's economic success in the past quarter-century has been breathtaking. But the effects of such a huge social movement have not been all positive. When women left homemaking, they also left neighborhood-making, and school-making, and morality enforcing. We haven't yet figured out how to fill the gap they left behind.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/27/96