CHICAGO -- As women continue to enter the labor force, inch toward salaries men make and very slowly climb the corporate ladder -- the problems employed women face do not diminish.
In fact, by the time they reach retirement age, many have no pension or health-insurance benefits and often live in poverty.
"Working women are struggling with a variety of issues, balancing family and work, especially women who are going it alone," said Maxine Forman, senior program specialist for the Women's Initiative, a division of the American Association of Retired Persons based in Washington.
"Working women have to juggle employment while dealing with care giving, which now includes not only children under 17 years of age but elderly relatives and adult children returning home," said Forman, who has a master's degree in women's studies and was policy director for the now-defunct Women's Action Equity League.
Pay inequity is a "critical" problem, she says. "It's hard to know whether or not women's wages are getting better because men are earning so much less," said Forman. "And low wages lead to low pensions. When women retire, they usually get about half of what men get."
Forman says that to change the status of women in the workplace is "going to take sustained effort by organizations able to influence employers and legislators, and to get women to see it's in their own best self-interest to work on their own behalf. . . "
One organization with an upfront commitment is the 52 million-member AARP, which established its Women's Initiative in 1984 "to ensure that the economic, social, health and long-term care needs of mid-life and older women are met." Forman's department has six staff members working on a national basis to provide funds and seminars on employment, worker equity, financial control and retirement planning.
AARP recently published a newsletter with facts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the changing work force.
Among the findings:
* In 1990, more than 57 percent of women over age 16 were in the paid labor force. In 1950, only 33 percent were.
* By 2000, 64 percent of the new entrants to the labor force will be women.
* In women's prime earning years of 45 to 54, they earn 63 !B percent of what a man earns.
* A female college graduate working full time earns less than a man with a high school diploma.
* Pay inequity is a result of job ghettos for women, with men in better-paying jobs, and of women earning lower salaries than men in the same jobs.
* The glass ceiling holds firm, with only 19 women among 4,012 people among the highest-paid officers and directors of 799 of the largest U.S. companies.
"Discrimination against women is an age-old problem," said Forman, "but older women face the issue of being somewhat dispensable in employers' eyes. We live in a youth-centered society, where youth is equated with vigor, beauty and competence."
Though averages of lifetime earnings and pension benefits are low for women in general, they are even lower for African American women, according to Sharon M. Collins, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"As a group, black women are at the very bottom," said Collins, who has a doctorate from Northwestern University and is an expert on middle-class black workers in American corporations. "Though there have been wage gains at all levels of education, believe it or not, wage gains have advanced the least for college-educated black women."
By retirement, the sociologist says, "Black women have the least savings and are the least prepared for retirement. Though black women are more likely to work full time than white women, their wages are not comparable."
Collins points to the glass ceiling as a major factor in keeping women in low-paying jobs and making them vulnerable at retirement. "It is up to the current administration to recognize the inequalities women and minorities are confronted with and to do something about them," said the sociologist. "The glass ceiling is really lead, not glass."
Many women are leaving corporate America in frustration at not getting promoted and are opening their own businesses. But even female entrepreneurs are not guaranteed a comfortable retirement.
"In many ways, women business owners are even more fragile than paid employees," said Aileen C. Hernandez, acting president of the Coalition for Economic Equity, a multiethnic association of business owners in San Francisco.
"Though women are going into business in great numbers, they don't have large economic resources to begin with, so they have little money to spend on pension and retirement benefits," said Hernandez, owner of Aileen C. Hernandez Associates, an urban consulting firm. "They may do well while they are working -- but not when retired."
Even though her firm is doing well, the consultant says she does not have a company pension but saves for retirement through a 401k plan.
"I expect to work until I fall over," Hernandez said.