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Maria Shriver announced that we now live in what she calls “A Woman’s Nation.” She wrote on the Huffington Post last week:

“For the first time in our nation's history, women now represent half of all workers and are becoming the primary breadwinners in more families than ever before. These two facts have far reaching consequences to government, business, faith communities, women and even men. “

The “mancession” means women are gaining economic responsibility for families across income and professional levels.

“For the first time in economic history, the male unemployment rate has surpassed the female unemployment rate. The December 2008 unemployment rate for men was 7.9 percent, versus 6.4 percent for women. The U.S. economy lost 2.956 million jobs in the last year, and a full 82 percent of pink slips have been handed to male workers.”

As Heather Boushey, economist at Center for American Progress put it, “Families will increasingly rely on women’s earnings, which are typically lower than men’s and are less likely to come with health insurance.”

My question is: what impact will the new labor force shift have on women’s ability to negotiate roles at work that allow them to be caregivers? Women in power often have to contend with the “ideal worker” stereotype. We’ve always idealized the hard-striving, dominant man with a wife at home to take care of matters outside the office. Now, as many of those ideal workers are losing their jobs, women have an opportunity to redefine what an ideal worker is. But we have to play it carefully.

A new survey from Cali Yost at Work+Life Fit finds 94% of employees are willing to change their schedule or cut their salary to avoid layoffs, but 47 percent of workers are less likely to voluntarily leave the workforce for a period of time. Women (56%) were significantly more likely than men (40%) to say they are less likely to voluntarily leave the workforce to take care of a child or elder, for example. Does this mean, if women hold the majority of jobs, but are less likely to leave to assume the child and elder care responsibilities they traditionally hold, they’re forced to negotiate with employers to make it work?

Yost’s survey finds that employees are willing to work more flexibly (in the guise of reduced hours) to save their jobs and help their employers reduce costs. She found “nearly 8 in 10 employees would be willing to work a compressed work week, while nearly 60 percent would take additional unpaid vacation days or furloughs (several weeks off without pay). Nearly half would share their jobs with colleagues (48%), or take a cut in both pay and hours (47%). A little more than 4 in 10 would take a pay cut but work the same amount of hours or switch to a project-based contractor employment status (41%). Just under a third say they would take a month or more unpaid sabbatical.”

I wondered, is this desperation under the guise of flexibility, or is it employees being willing to sacrifice money for extra time and flexibility and using the recession as an opportunity to do so? Why do I feel like women would be the first to consider flexible options and a pay cut, and this may not be a great thing for women at work? But I asked Yost about this, and she said,

“For the past twenty years, flexibility such as reduced schedules, sabbaticals, job sharing has primarily been driven by employee-need. What this survey says is employees understand that these same flexible ways of working can also be led by business-need….

“After studying and writing about this issue for over a year, I believe the willingness of both men and women to sacrifice pay and schedule to manage through the recession with their jobs intact is less desperation than pragmatism and shared sacrifice. I see this as an opportunity for flexibility to finally come in from the “nice thing to do, perk and benefit” wilderness and become part of the way the business operates, and the way people manage their work and life in up and down cycles. “

I asked Yost, if she worried flexibility is coming at the expense of opportunity for advancement for women, or is this not a gender issue?

She said, “I think this finding will have ramifications on the advancement of women and will, ultimately require an even more effective use of flexibility in the future… More women will remain employed for longer more consistent periods of time, but the inevitable reality will arise—yes, they are working BUT they need flexibility to continue to care for their families. They aren’t leaving as they might have in the past, so how to we make flexibility really work for everyone.”

Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel part: as more women become breadwinners, our visibility increases and so does our collective bargaining power. Is now the time the ideal worker model becomes less important than the flexible, practical worker?

I don’t know the answer. Would you propose a reduced or flex schedule to your employer right now? Does feel less, or more risky than before?

Morra Aarons-Mele also blogs at www.womenandwork.org.


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