Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Gender Roles and Gender Realities

I read an interesting book a couple of months (in case it isn't already obvious, I read a lot) called The Feminine Mistake.

The author posits that married women who choose the stay at home wife/Mom path do so at their financial peril. Given that 50% of marriages end in divorce, that single women with children make up a large component of the poor, that men die earlier than women, and that even when women work, they still make around 80 cents to every dollar men make. For many married women, a day comes when they will have to support themselves and their children alone. And once the children are out of the home, older women are still behind the financial eight ball. According to the Our Bodies, Ourselves Health Resource Center (www.ourbodiesourselves.com):

Women who are in the paid labor force earn less over our lifetime than do men. According to one estimate, the average 25-year-old working woman will lose about $455,000 to unequal pay during her lifetime, leaving her with less money to save, a smaller pension (if she has one at all), and lower Social Security benefits. After a lifetime of being unpaid, underpaid, or unemployed, it is no accident and no surprise that women 65 and over are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as older men.

A few weeks after I finished The Feminine Mistake, the findings of a recent Insight Committee for Community Economic Development study placed single black women at the bottom of the economic ladder with net worths that average $5, and for many amounts to a negative number-- meaning her debts eclipse any assets available she has. Marriage changes the equation, however. According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development's "Lifting As We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America's Future," study:

...while marriage appears to ameliorate some economic hardship for both men and women across races, the data indicate that the positive effect of marriage on net worth is particularly amplified for black and Hispanic women.

The Feminine Mistake and the Insight Committee report seemed to make complimentary suggestions for wealth building for black women: marry, but don't quit your day job, just in case it doesn't work out.

This information comes into my hand at a time when I'm once again re-thinking my own career path and my "worth" but economic and otherwise. I gave up the "traditional workforce" almost ten years ago, leaving a comfortable job at a legal publishing company to strike out on my own. Since then, I've written eight books, done countless freelance projects of every kind imagineable-- but I'd hardly call my career a financial success. Rather, it's allowed me to explore my interests and be available to raise our two daughters.My husband makes the lion's share of the money that supports this household-- and if something happened to him, dramatic changes would be necessary. I'm certain I'm employable--I still have that Havard Law degree and nothing erases it-- but like the women interviewed in the Feminine Mistake--I'd almost be starting over in both experience and salary.

Lately, as publishing becomes increasingly uncertain and an expanding content market makes the margins of really making a living as a writer harder I think about my traditional work experiences. Making one's own money feels good. Interacting with other professionals can (sometimes) be deeply rewarding. And building a nest egg agagainst disasters is a very good think. Being financially independent again definitely appeals to me for all of the reasons explained in The Feminine Mistake-- and for the kinds of reasons outlined in a recent webinar sponsored by the Insight Committee for Community Economic Development. Black women having assets that our own to use, being financial independent helps us to further create our identity in the world-- and to carve out places of safety for the next generation.

This coin, however, has a flip side. Being married to a man who is willing and able to provide for us enables me to offer my girls a different kind of security. If I were to write a rebuttal to The Feminine Mistake, it would simply be this: for as long as both partners analyze their resources in ways that allow it and are willing to take the gamble, having a parent in the home offers intangible benefits that are as fulfilling as the economic ones of a salary. There are incalcuable benefits to this family that reach beyond dollars. Being around to talk to a teenaged daughter about the pressures of school, to take Lil Bit to the playground and buy ice cream, to prepare home made dinners, and create an unhurried environment helps to make our home a calm and peaceful refuge for us all. I feel these are worthwhile sacrifices in the short term and for as long as they are economically viable. Indeed, I think many women seek a life like mine, in which there is a balance of intellectual and renumerative pursuits combined with nesting and nurturing-- so do more and more men, but that's a different post.

The point is that until women are earning at the same rate as men, that childcare is free and shared between genders, and workplaces are structured in ways that allow parents to balance professional opportunity with family responsibility, women are likely to come out on the shortest end of the stick-- and single women with children are likely to see their assets continue to dwindle. Marriage alone certainly is a solution, but for many black women being unmarried with children adds to the wealth drain.

And as for me...my dilemma is solved by writing a bestseller and getting on Oprah! LOL!

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