She's got the whole world in her hands

The Economist reports on the changing role of women in the workforce.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
April 13, 2006 10:23PM (UTC)
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Congratulations, ladies! The future of the world economy lies increasingly in your hands, according to a report in this week's Economist with the awkward title "A Guide to Womenomics." This story is chock full of noteworthy bits, from the fact that women still make up two-thirds of the globe's illiterate adults to the contention that women make better investors than men.

The most surprising finding is on how working outside the home impacts birthrates -- or doesn't. "It is sometimes argued that it is shortsighted to get more women into paid employment. The more women go out to work, it is said, the fewer children there will be and the lower growth will be in the long run. Yet the facts suggest otherwise countries with high female labor participation rates, such as Sweden, tend to have higher fertility rates than Germany, Italy and Japan, where fewer women work. Indeed, the decline in fertility has been greatest in several countries where female employment is low."


"It seems that if higher female labor participation is supported by the right policies, it need not reduce fertility. To make full use of their national pools of female talent, governments need to remove obstacles that make it hard for women to combine work with having children. This may mean offering parental leave and child care, allowing more flexible working hours, and reforming tax and social-security systems that create disincentives for women to work.

"Countries in which more women have stayed at home, namely Germany, Japan and Italy, offer less support for working mothers. This means that fewer women take or look for jobs; but it also means lower birth rates because women postpone childbearing. Japan, for example, offers little support for working mothers: only 13% of children under three attend day-care centers, compared with 54% in America and 34% in Britain."

So, if you want to maintain birthrates, the clear answer is to support parents with better parental leave polices, childcare and flexible work arrangements. Yet, I can't say that I'm very optimistic about American policymakers and companies seeing the wisdom in that anytime soon. San Francisco, one of the most famously progressive cities in the country, doesn't even offer its elected officials maternity leave. And while the state of California guarantees expectant mothers as much as four weeks of paid time off before they give birth, a recent study found that only one-third of employed moms-to-be take advantage of the policy, whether out of fear that their employers will frown on their absence or simple ignorance of the benefit.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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