Obviously, ‘W’ Stands for Woe

It was nigh onto impossible to have survived last year’s presidential campaign without hearing the oft-repeated Bush slogan: “W” Stands for Women.

Laura made news with it, Barbara made news with it, Lynn Cheney led campaign appearances with it, and the president came darned close to winning the women’s vote with it.

But now the question arises: Which women exactly did that “W” stand for?

Bush’s second term had not yet begun. But his minions at the Labor Department were busy toying with a policy that impacts just about every working woman in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) wants to stop collecting and issuing work survey data by gender.

Lest you conclude that these data are not important (as the administration already has), consider the following. The BLS recently reported that women hold almost half the non-farm payroll jobs in the United States, up from almost one-third in 1964. This is historically significant.

Last time I checked, people called this the information age. If gender is dropped as a reporting requirement, we’ll never know whether or if women become precisely half or more than half of the work force. That lack of knowledge is one step to the right of zany and just the beginning of what we won’t know.

We won’t know if more men become nurses or women become doctors. We won’t be able to compare women’s earnings with men’s earnings, or women’s rates of small-business ownership with men’s. We won’t know if men (vs. women) are leaving retailing or entering manufacturing. And on and on.

The administration’s rationale for discontinuing the collection of gender-differentiated labor data (as reported by The Washington Post) is as follows. First, there is little demand for the information. Second, the agency plans to start asking businesses for more job and wage information on all workers, and does not wish to overburden employers.

The first claim is total bunk. There’s plenty of demand for the data _ by historians, educators and, most especially, from progressive women’s rights groups who continue to press for equal pay and opportunity for working women. Therein, most likely, lies the real reason the Labor Department wants to scrap its collection. It would just as soon quash the debate over the so-called wage gap.

Funnily enough, however, many conservative and Republican women still want the data collected. I asked someone who works for the (conservative) Independent Women’s Forum what she thought of the plan. She replied that she and her group would probably still want the data collected, if only to refute claims the wage gap still exists.

On the Republican side, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, co-signed a protest letter to the BLS calling its decision misguided. “With a gender breakdown, the payroll survey is capable of painting a reliable picture of where women are working across industries and business cycles … Without a gender breakdown, that picture becomes far more difficult to obtain.”

As to the second claim (too burdensome for employers), I hope you’re having a good laugh. We can require employers to report industries covered, industry subsets covered, numbers of full- and part-time workers, hours worked, salary and benefit rates and mountains of other tax- and employment-related data. But ask them to identify males or females, and all of a sudden the paperwork quotient not only hits but explodes the bell in the old-fashioned carnival “test your strength” challenge.

This latest move is all too reminiscent of the Bush Labor Department’s attempt during its first four years to abolish or drastically reduce funding for the department’s Women’s Bureau. The Bureau has been described as “the sole federal agency serving the needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process.”

Two years ago, Uncle Sam was spending $3.7 million to keep open the Women’s Bureau. But the administration wanted it closed or severely depleted in a cost-saving move. Oh, I see. We can afford a $200 billion-plus war, but not a small bureau to look out for wage-earning women.

Perhaps the campaign slogan should have been: “WW(n)W” stands for Women, as in wealthy, white (non) working women.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)