There are two story lines circulating in the media about the recession's effect on women: The first, more ridiculous one, is that the primary impact of the recession is on women's romantic lives. Laid-off, ego-bruised boyfriends and husbands! No more expensive dinners! At Salon, Rebecca Traister has a good take-down of these faux "trend" pieces.
The second story line is that the recession is actually some sort of feminist watershed, since four out of five laid-off workers are men. "Working women may soon outnumber working men!" the headlines trumpet. (Currently, women make up 47 percent of the workforce.) And while it will indeed be historic if women soon account for the majority of American workers, the reality is that for many children and women, the loss of a father's or male partner's income is disastrous. Why? Because both the pay gap and occupational gender segregation continue to depress women's incomes.
Women are more likely to be employed part-time and work without benefits. On average, single women earn $12,000 less annually than single men. And in the typical household headed by a heterosexual couple, the woman contributes just 35 percent of the income. At a Legal Momentum briefing on women and the economic crisis this morning, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) summed up the situation: "[Women] are still paid less, they're taking home less, and they have an increasing economic burden. ... Watch the way statistics get turned around on this issue."
The stimulus package does little to address this problem. The legislation focuses on infrastructure projects that are supposed to result in large-scale job creation. But the fields that will be bolstered are dominated by men. For example, just 2.7 percent of construction laborers, 1.9 percent of carpenters, .5 percent of highway workers, and 1.7 percent of electricians are women. Democratic members of the House, led by Colorado freshman Jared Polis, failed in their effort to include provisions in the law that would have required affirmative action in the hiring for these new positions. And while Obama's plans to expand early childhood care will create jobs for women, those jobs are, notoriously, among the lowest paid in the country. The average income of a childcare worker is just $17,630 annually.
What's the solution? States could require firms receiving stimulus funds to give a certain proportion of new jobs -- say 25 percent -- to historically excluded groups. But that is unlikely to happen. More promising is the Pathways Advancing Career Training Act, which would create programs to give women the skills they need to compete for high-skills, unionized jobs. DeLauro will be introducing that bill this year.