In Social Security reports, a story of women's choices

March 07, 2011|Susan Reimer

Just about every year, the Social Security Administration sends my husband and me a statement, showing how much we have earned each year of our working lives, what we have contributed to Social Security and what our benefits will be when we retire.

The document is kind of amusing. I didn't remember what I made at 16 as a salad girl for a smorgasbord restaurant, but there it is. And I can see what my husband made as a bus boy at a local hotel restaurant during college.

But I used these Social Security statements to create another kind of report for my son and my daughter, both adults now and earning a living.

"See?" I said, running my finger down the columns of years and dollars.

"These are your dad's earnings and my earnings in the days when we were both single reporters." The numbers are pretty much the same, except that he was older and had a couple of modest raises under his belt.

"Now look here," I said. "This is the year I took six months unpaid maternity leave for you, Joseph. And Jessica, this is me, going back to work only part time after you were born.

"And here," I said, "is me returning to work full-time more than a decade later. Look at the difference."

My husband and I were still in the newspaper business, and though we'd started out making pretty much the same money — a union helps this happen — now he was making almost twice as much as I was.

The point I was trying to make to my children was about the "cost" of children, and it could not have been more clear.

If you are counting on two paychecks to keep afloat the families that you will one day have, I told them, you better factor in the financial hit one of those wage earners is going to take for the sake of the children.

So, it was not a surprise to me when the White House reported last week that although women outnumber men among high school and college graduates and women almost outnumber men in the workforce, women still earn only 75 cents for every dollar earned by a male co-worker, a number that has barely changed in decades.

The report, "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," was President Barack Obama's gift, of sorts, to women on the first day of Women's History Month. There hadn't been an assessment of the status of women in this country since Eleanor Roosevelt did one for President John F. Kennedy in 1963 — which is itself very telling.

The reasons for the stubborn pay gap largely have to do with male and female career path choices: nurse instead of doctor; teacher instead of sales manager.

But it is also true that women work fewer hours per week, fewer weeks each year and fewer years during their work lives, and they assume much more of the uncompensated work of caring for the home and raising the kids.

There is discrimination in the hiring and promotion of women, certainly. But women also tend to represent a self-selecting group. Once a woman has a family, in most cases, her career becomes kind of conditional, because there is no doubt which is more important in the crunch — a job or a child.

The workaholic model has benefited my husband, but once the children arrived, I no longer fit that model, and that's the reason for our own personal pay gap. I am guessing it is part of the reason for the national pay gap, too.

Put my Social Security statement up against my husband's and you will see more than columns of dates and dollars. You will see choices we have made — I have made — over the life of our family.

It is all there, in black and white. But it still comes as a bit of a shock.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is

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