shriver_onpageCalifornia First Lady Maria Shriver says we’re now living in a Woman’s Nation — women make up half the work force, the majority of mothers are the main breadwinners or co-breadwinners of their families and women are in charge of 80% of the high ticket item household spending.  That, says Shriver, is some power we need to grab by the horns!

So why doesn’t it feel like we have more influence and gravitas when it comes to managing our lives? And why does it seem like women are still the ones doing all the juggling and compromising, both at work and at home?  Is it our own fault because we don’t know how to use the power we have or are things tougher than Shriver’s report suggests?

To her credit, Shriver has put together an extensive report on the state of families today — The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything — that examines attitudes of men and women, husbands and wives, and employers and employees, about the state of our lives, with an emphasis on the role of mothers and how that’s changed since her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, commissioned a White House study on women over 40 years ago. The study’s main thesis, which was written in conjunction with the Center for American Progress,  is this — that the simple fact of living in a country where women make up more than half of the work force will ultimately change things for women for the better.

On Monday, Shriver talked about many of the findings in a conference call with 30 bloggers including Julie Pippert from Using My Words, BlogHer’s Morra Arrons-Mele, Mary Kate Cary of  US News & World Report, and Rebecca Traister from Salon, among others (and thank you to Ms. Shriver and the CAP for inviting me to participate!).  She expressed her very heartfelt belief that it’s time for women to stand up and use the power of their numbers, be brave and demand what they need and what her report says employers already know — that it’s in the financial best interests of businesses to allow workplace flexibility of all kinds for men and women.

But I wondered, what prompted such a report now?  As Morra points at the Families and Work Institute Blog:

The report stems from the finding that women are … as Gloria Steinem put it … half of all workers with incomes that are necessary to 80 percent of families—indeed, 40 percent of babies are now born to single mothers—childcare is still nowhere on the list of priorities in Congress, and we have also become the only industrialized country without any requirement of paid family leave.

I asked Shriver, if women are still getting paid significantly less than men (77 cents on the dollar), carry the lion’s share of family obligations AND still have voices that are heard less than men’s, how can we move forward and make any real change, even if we have become a majority of workers?

Shriver’s response was surprising and shocking.  She said women felt afraid — afraid to go in and ask for time off to care for someone or ask for the flexibility needed to do their jobs and care for their families. Not hesitant or cautious, but afraid. She hopes that women will overcome that fear, see that there are lots of people in the same boat and find the strength and courage to demand what they need and embrace the power of being the majority in the workforce.

I certainly get Shriver’s point and agree in the abstract, but marching into your boss’ office and making any sort of “demand” these days might not be the best tactic to ensure a regular income.  Finesse might be a better strategy at the moment.  If any worker’s fear is driven by a concern about losing their job, that’s certainly a legitimate concern in today’s economy.

In a conversation on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, a panel of women, including financial commentator Suze Orman, were vehement in their collective opinion that one of the reasons more women are employed today has less to do with gender inequality coming to an end and more to do with the fact that women are paid lower wages than men and are less inclined to ask for a raise, and, therefore, are seen as more desirable hires in these tight economic times.

While the report is titled a Woman’s Nation, it does seem very focused on families with children.  A fair question was asked by BlogHer’s Elisa Camahort on Twitter while some of us were live-tweeting the call, wondering whether the report shouldn’t more accurately be called “A Mom’s Nation,” since its focus is more on mothers than on women without children who may have other caregiving obligations other than offspring. It was something that struck me and others on the call, too.

So with all the good information and food for thought contained in the Shriver Report, will it spark a real national conversation or will it fade away in a few days after Shriver’s Conference on Women is over? It’s hard for a cynic like me to hold out much hope.  There was a time when I was optimistic about all these things — when I was in my late teens and early twenties I thought that by the time I was a mother and in my mid-life that things would be drastically different.  I envisioned that my nieces and daughter would have much smoother sailing than my generation or the ones that went before me.

During the conference call, John Podesta, the CAP’s president, proudly proclaimed that the results of the report are proof that “the battle of the sexes is over.”  I wish I could believe that, but I have a sense that when it comes to our country truly becoming a Woman’s Nation, we shouldn’t get rid of our body armor just yet.