April 4, 2012
Recent polls show severe slippage for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among women voters in the wake of a divisive battle about providing contraception that dominated the Republican primaries for the past two months.
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But is that all it is? The so-called “gender gap” has been a feature of American politics for most of the past two decades. And the chasm between male and female voters has only grown wider in recent years.
In 2008, women voters cast 56 percent of their ballots for President Obama, compared to 43 percent for Republican standard bearer John McCain. But even in 2004, when President George W. Bush eked out a narrow win over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, women cast their ballots 51 – 48 in favor of the Democratic standard bearer.
Several federal reports on the changing demographic and economic realities of women in the workforce offer a revealing glimpse into why many have turned in recent years to the Democratic Party, which is traditionally seen as the “mommy party” because of its concern for equality, fairness, social services and the well-being of children.
A recent Census Bureau report on women in the workforce showed that women on average still earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, which is essentially unchanged since 2003. Between 1980 and 2003, that ratio had moved up to 77 percent from about 60 percent.
Why the Lack of Progress More Recently?
First, wages for all workers have stagnated in the past decade. And labor experts say women are disproportionately concentrated in caring professions like teaching, whose paychecks and pensions are under assault by conservative politicians in many states.
Meanwhile, the ongoing changes in family life continue to push women to seek greater financial independence and security, which the workplace increasingly fails to offer. According to Census Bureau data, only 52 percent of adults ages 18 and older were married in 2008, compared with 72 percent in 1960. Nearly three in ten adults of either sex have never married, one in seven is divorced, and nearly four in ten say marriage has become obsolete, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
That puts a heavy onus on women to earn their own way, and they’re trying. While their relative wages have remained stagnant in the past decade, women continue to outpace men on the education front – ostensibly to get the higher pay and earnings that a better education offers.
In 1980, 21 percent of adult men in the workforce had college degrees, compared to just 14 percent of women. But by 2010, according to the Census Bureau, women had reached parity, with nearly 30 percent of each group having at least a bachelor’s degree. The college-educated, who vote in disproportionately higher numbers than less educated people, made up nearly 46 percent of the electorate in 2008.
And women are likely to pull ahead on the education front in the next few years. Among the 25-to-29 age group – those who have most recently entered the workforce – fully 36 percent of all women had a college degree, compared to just 28 percent of men, whose forward progress in educational attainment has begun to slip for the first time in American history. College enrollment is now nearly 60 percent women.
Yet this greater educational achievement has not translated into greater earnings power in the workplace. Between 1970 and 1990 when women entered the workforce in droves because of career aspirations and the need for families to have two wage earners to make ends meet, the rate of women in managerial positions climbed from 16 percent to 38 percent. But over the succeeding two decades – a time when women’s educational achievement skyrocketed and reached comparability with men – they only increased their managerial status by a single percentage point – to 39 percent.
The Republicans’ likely standard-bearer isn’t holding out a hand to help their educational striving to gain wage parity, either. Standing before a factory gate in Youngstown, Ohio, last month, Romney said, “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that.”