U.S. economic security and family well being go hand in hand, but the role of women who provide this stability in workplaces communities, and homes across our nation is underappreciated. Individually, American families today are well aware of the importance of women’s earnings, especially in working and middle class households where they increasingly pull in the bulk of the family pay. But writ large, if women were not working at the pace and scale they are today our economy would be smaller by $1.7 trillion, or 11 percent, compared to 35 years ago.
Or put another way, the growing income inequality between wealthy professionals and working and middle class families since the late 1970s would be demonstrably worse if not for the sustained entry of women into the workforce to support their families. In neighborhoods across our country, average wages for working and middle class family breadwinners (mostly men) barely kept pace with the rate of inflation over the past four decades, which means the rise of women in the workforce enabled these families to spend on their everyday needs and save for their children’s education and their own retirement.
Numbers like these – 41 percent of women work full time today, up from 27 percent in 1979, with the median number of hours worked by mothers with children in the household in both full- and part-time jobs rising to 1,560 hours a year compared to 600 in 1979 – demonstrate the overall importance of women’s earnings to our society and economy. After all, an additional $1.7 trillion is a lot of money earned and requires many more hours of work for women, who still shoulder much of the traditional care giving.
But these numbers don’t at all convey the struggles many women in the workforce face each and every day, especially primary caregivers who are also the predominant wage earner or who provide the financial wherewithal to keep their families from slipping down the ladder in society. For these women, workplaces designed when men were mostly the sole breadwinners – workplaces with no flexibility to care for children and elderly parents – leave so many women and men alike struggling to be responsible family members and good employees.
Our workplace laws and business employment practices date back to a far different, male-centric era, yet our economy and our society today rely on women to support their families at work and at home. It’s time for Congress to recognize this massive social shift by updating our workplace laws to match these new workplace realities.
This is not a heavy lift, either. Current workplace laws can easily be amended so that workers (men and women alike) can request flexible work schedules that still match the needs of their employers. And current laws that allow for unpaid family and medical leave and sick days can be changed to make these days off with pay so that mothers and fathers do not have to choose between caring for their kids or parents and losing a pay check or even their jobs.
Indeed, workers (men and women alike) who most need workplace flexibility tell researchers that they have the least access to it, mostly because their individual or combined earnings are barely enough to support their families if they don’t work as scheduled. One last sad set of numbers tells why these reforms are essential especially for working and middle class families: Only 19 percent of new mothers without a high school degree receive paid maternity leave today compared to 66 percent of those with a college degree. That’s just wrong.
Enacting common sense flexible work rules with paid family, medical, and sick leave would provide relief when family emergencies and everyday family needs – ones that currently bedevil so many moms and dads alike as they juggle work and family responsibilities – would secure family livelihoods and brighten family homes. Our society would be better off, our children and elderly better cared for, and our economy and our nation stronger and more resilient.
Eileen Appelbaum is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Heather Boushey is executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
This article originally appeared on US News and World Report.