"Women in America": We've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go

Today, the first day of the newly proclaimed Women's History Month, the White House released "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," the first comprehensive federal report on women in decades.

"The issues facing women today are not just women's issues," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and co-chair of the White House Council for Women and Girls. "When women make less than men for the same work, it impacts the families. When a job doesn't offer family leave, it impacts both parents, and often the entire family and extended family. When there's no childcare, children end up in second-rate care or spending afternoons alone in front of a television set."

The last major U.S. report on women's welfare was produced by President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. It came out in 1963.

In proclaiming March to be Women's History Month, President Obama wrote: "Today, women have reached heights their mothers and grandmothers might only have imagined. Women now comprise nearly half of our workforce and the majority of students in our colleges and universities. They scale the skies as astronauts, expand our economy as entrepreneurs and business leaders, and serve our country at the highest levels of government and our Armed Forces. In honor of the pioneering women who came before us, and in recognition of those who will come after us, this month, we recommit to erasing the remaining inequities facing women in our day."

So, aside from this being the newly proclaimed Women's History Month, why release the chart- and graph-filled report now?

"President has made clear that policy decisions should be based on evidence," said Preeta Bansal, general counsel and senior policy advisor at the Office of Management and Budget.

"We've got to encourage women to go into higher paying fields, to be educated in a way to go into higher paying jobs," Jarrett added. "You really have to look at the whole story of a woman's life, and this report gives us a comprehensive way to do that."

The 2011 "Women in America" report focuses on five areas:

  • People, families, and income
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Health
  • Crime and violence
The findings aren't new; rather, the report pulls together data from a variety of sources and studies, offering a big-picture view of the issues women face today, and how women's lives in the United States has changed over time.

"The power of the report isn't in one any particular graph," said Becky Blank, the acting deputy secretary at the Department of Commerce, "but in the coalition of all of this information in one place."

"You really have to look at the whole story of a woman's life, and this report gives us a comprehensive way to do that," Jarrett added.

Some highlights from the new report (you can download the PDF here) are:
  • Women enroll in and graduate from college and graduate school in larger number than men but, once they're in the workplace, they're faced with lower wages than men and are more likely to live in poverty. "At all levels of education, women earn about 75 percent of what their male counterparts earned in 2009," said Jarrett.
  • While the number of men and women in the labor force has nearly equalized in recent years, the report says, wives who work outside of the home still spend more time doing household chores and volunteer work than their husbands, who spend more time at the office and at leisure or sports activities.
  • Women live longer than men, but it's not necessarily because they're healthier: More women than men have arthritis, asthma, and mental illness, and the number of women age 18 to 64 with no health insurance or no usual source of health care has increased.
  • Women are marrying later and have fewer children than they were in the past. More women and men have never married, and women are giving birth to their first children at an older age now than they were in the past.
  • Adult women are more likely to live in poverty than adult men. Single-mother families face particularly high poverty rates, often because of the lower wages earned by women in these families.
  • Hispanic and white women between the ages of 25 and 44 have higher rates of marriage compared to their male counterparts, but African American women in that same age group have lower rates of marriage than their male counterparts.
  • Non-fatal crimes against women declined between 1993 and 2008, as did homicides and reported rapes. But the imprisonment rate for women has increased, and women are more likely than men to be the victims of stalking or domestic violence.
"Women's lives have just changed," said Blank, "and we can argue about whether its for the better or for the worse."

Like this story? Follow us on Twitter for more.

Also on Shine: