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Women's equality not quite there yet

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN
  • White House has released statistical report on "Women in America"
  • Stephanie Coontz: Report says women more likely to earn less, face poverty, suffer assault
  • But women have made big gains since last report in 1963 in earnings, education, status
  • Coontz: Men hurt by unwillingness to take "women's" jobs; inequalities still a challenge

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and most recently authored "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s ."

(CNN) -- Last week the White House released a comprehensive statistical report on "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," the first such assessment since President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women released its findings in 1963.

The new report indicates that women still earn less, on average, than men and are more likely to live in poverty. They are also at much greater risk of sexual assault and of violence at the hands of an intimate partner than men.

To be sure, the report shows that there is still plenty of progress to be made. But it is Women's History Month, and a good time to pause for perspective.

There have been astonishing improvements in the status of American women in the 48 years since the first report was published. For one thing, the authors of this year's report saw no need for a section detailing the legal disabilities facing American women.

By contrast, the 1963 report cataloged the array of laws and practices that denied homemakers any legal claim on money earned by their husbands and gave husbands the right to determine where a couple lived, how community property was spent, and even whether a wife could get a credit card.

Nor did this year's report need to complain about the once-common practice of establishing quotas on how many women were admitted to educational institutions or desirable jobs. In 1963, just 2.6 percent of all attorneys were female, and of the 422 federal judges only three were women. Today, women make up one-third of all lawyers, and there are three females on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1960, 60 percent of women who entered college quit before graduation, often to earn their Ph.T., as the practice of dropping out to Put Hubby Through school was jocularly called. Today at all educational levels, females are less likely than males to drop out of school. Women now earn a majority of bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates.

And unlike 1963, educational achievement now outweighs gender in determining income. As late as 1970, the average woman with a bachelor's degree, working full time, earned less than the average male high-school graduate. Today, in most major metro areas, women in their 20s earn more their male counterparts, largely because of their higher educational attainments.

Over the course of a lifetime, women generally still earn less than men, in large part because they are more likely than men to adjust their work schedules to the demands of raising children. For that, they pay an economic price that accumulates and accelerates over the years.

Women are also more likely to have residential custody of children after a divorce or unwed birth, which puts an added damper on their earning power. But it is worth noting that the poverty rates of divorced and unwed mothers were twice as high in 1963 as they are today.

There has been similar progress in terms of violence against women. Domestic violence rates fell by 54 percent between 1994 and 2008, and the rate of rape against women, as measured by self-reports and not just police reports, fell by 60 percent between 1993 and 2000.

I'm not arguing that we now live in a paradise for women. Gender barriers and stereotypes still get in the way of women's progress. In traditionally male fields such as engineering and computer sciences, females still receive only 20 percent of the degrees. Women still tend to be concentrated on lower-paid, traditionally "female" fields, such as teaching and nursing. Only a handful of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are female.

Even when they do enter higher-paid occupations, many studies show that women are much less assertive than men about negotiating their salaries. Economists estimate this unwillingness to assert their own worth as workers ends up costing women as much as $500,000 in earnings by the time they reach 60.

This pattern, along with the continued existence of "old boy" networks, helps explain why more than three-quarters of all workers earning more than $100,000 per year are men.

But today adhering to gender stereotypes in the workplace can be costly for men as well as women. Many men, for example, still tend to shun "female" jobs in favor of work in the construction and industrial fields that are increasingly precarious in our society. As a result, in the past four recessions men have had higher unemployment rates than women -- a sharp break from past experience -- and are less likely to have health insurance than women.

Clearly, gender stereotypes still lead to behaviors that do harm. But increasingly they are harmful to men as well as women. One of the great achievements of the past five decades is that we have reached a point where the inequalities in our society are not something that all women and minorities face and only women and minorities suffer from.

But that is also our great challenge -- figuring out how to eliminate the inequalities that still remain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.