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Women seeking parity have work ahead of them

Women may have made strides in achieving parity with men in the workplace in recent years, but they still have a long, long way to go, according to a new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
/ Source: Business Week

Women may have made strides in achieving parity with men in the workplace in recent years, but they still have a long, long way to go, according to a new report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), which ranked the 50 states on issues such as women's political representation, earnings, health, and social status. The most disheartening finding: In some measures of social status and health, recent progress has been lost.

Given current rates of change, it will be 50 years before women achieve equal pay with men and nearly 25 years before they gain equal representation in Congress, estimates the think tank on issues affecting women. Currently, females earn 76 cents for every dollar males earn (up from 73 cents in 2002) and have only 79 representatives in Congress out of a total of 535 seats, despite representing slightly more than half of the U.S. population.

The fifth biannual Status of Women in the States report, released Nov. 16, was the first to include information about the status of women of color in different states (thanks to the availability of detailed U.S. Census data, which is only collected every 10 years). Researchers estimate that it will take 75 years for African-American women to achieve an equitable representation in Congress and close the gap between their earnings and white men's.

Resurgent aids
The report finds political representation for minority women has actually gotten worse in the past two years. The number of women of color elected to Congress declined from 21 in 2002 to 18 in 2004. There are currently no minority women in the Senate, and a woman of color has yet to be elected governor in the U.S.

There were other troublesome findings: Women's incidence of AIDS increased in 2001 to 9.1 cases reported per 100,000 women, up from 8.7 per 100,000 in 2000 (after falling from 9.4 per 100,000 in 1997). In 11 states, poverty rates among women increased from 1995 to 2002. The percentage of women among those serving in state legislatures barely nudged up, from 20.8 percent in 1996 to 22.5 percent in 2004.

Nonetheless, there were many signs of improvement. The number of women governors jumped from one to nine from 1996 to 2004. The wage gap between women and men narrowed in every state, with West Virginia showing the most improvement. Its wage gap decreased to 27.4 percentage points in 2002, vs. 41.4 percentage points in 1989.

Still lagging
Women made broad gains overall in dozens of measures described in the exhaustive 83-page report, which is available online at the IWPR site . However, “it's clear that progress hasn't been evenly felt among all women,” says Amy Caiazza, a political scientist at IWPR and one of the report's editors. After eight years of conducting the study, she notes, “It's a little discouraging that we haven't seen more positive change.”

The uneven progress is especially evident when you consider that the list of states showing up as the best and the worst for women hasn't changed much. Vermont, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Washington have all ranked among the best states for women in the prior four studies. Mississippi, on the other hand, has shown up dead last four times in a row. “Something needs to be done down there,” says Caiazza.

The other laggard states are South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Researchers gave an “honorable mention” to Oregon and a dishonorable mention to Florida. The study didn't adjust for standard of living, and thus, a lot of the worst-ranked states are also among the poorest. Reducing the number of women in poverty — 12.1 percent in 2002, vs. 13.7 percent in 1995, would help raise the bar for women in many states.

‘The good fight’
What can be done to improve women's status? Caiazza calls for better enforcement of existing equal opportunity and affirmative-action laws, the election of more women to public office, and fighting for better access to health care.

What about the simplest way to improve one's lot — moving to a state that ranks higher on the list? Caiazza laughs, but says, “We would prefer people stay and fight the good fight in their states.” With the latest report on the status of women, there is lots of fresh ammunition.