Pink-Collar Blues

From our pink-collar jobs package, Women's Work:

If you're paying attention to the numbers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the recession represents some kind of feminist watershed. With men accounting for four-fifths of the layoffs since the crisis began in December 2007, and women now making up 49 percent of the American work force, some commentators have been almost enthusiastic. "These numbers will likely have all kinds of ramifications over the long term, from transforming who does what in the family to remaking federal labor law," wrote Forbes columnist Elisabeth Eaves in April, musing that joblessness could inspire more men to become stay-at-home dads.

Yet some experts have a less rosy view of the recession's effect on women workers and their families.

Historically, men suffer the majority of job losses during recessions, so policy-makers focus their efforts on getting men back to work. But when the economy picks up again, women typically do not share equally in the gains, in part because they aren't equally employed in high-paying fields. And unemployment isn't the only indicator of economic struggle. Women are one-third more likely than men to have sub-prime mortgages, nearly 60 percent of impoverished children are living in female-headed households, and the poverty rate is higher among women than it is among men of any race. Undergirding all that is the stubbornness of the pay gap between men and women, meaning that women still earn just 78 cents on the male dollar--even for the same work, with the same educational background and number of years on the job. Advocates say that given these disparities, it is actually women who are harder hit by the recession, despite more staggering joblessness among men.

"Men are losing their jobs, so women have more responsibility economically in terms of taking care of their families," says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. "I would have liked to see more done in the economic-recovery program that would have addressed the issue of job opportunities for women in nontraditional sectors."

In the 1970s and early 1980s, feminists successfully sued for women's access to blue-collar professions such as firefighting and construction. Over the past several decades, the increased mechanization and computerization of those fields have made brute strength less of a requirement--and those jobs are more stable and pay better than the ones traditionally held by women without college educations. Often called "pink collar" workers, they include child-care providers, home health aides, beauty technicians, and shop clerks.

Yet today, given the epidemic of job loss in traditionally male industries, feminist advocates have been dealt several setbacks, opening up a debate on whether the economic crisis presents an opportunity to tackle the issue of occupational gender segregation or whether such efforts are a distraction from dealing with the broader jobs crisis.

The national unemployment rate reached 8.9 percent in April and is even higher in states such as Michigan, where the rate is 12.6 percent. Among African Americans, 13.3 percent are out of work, as are 11.4 percent of Latinos. Even before Barack Obama took office, there was speculation that the president's economic-recovery package would focus primarily on infrastructure development, which would lead to job creation in heavily male industries such as construction (87 percent male), manufacturing (71 percent male), and transportation (76 percent male). "The current proposal is simply too narrow," Linda Hirshman wrote in a December New York Times op-ed on the topic. "Women represent almost half of the work force--not exactly a marginal special interest group."

So attuned was the future White House to this critique that even before Obama's inauguration, two of his top economic advisers, Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein, released a report in response. They estimated that 42 percent of the jobs created by a $775 billion stimulus package would go to women, especially those in fields such as education and health care, where federal spending would bridge state budget gaps. Furthermore, they argued that women would be aided by other elements of the package, including middle-class tax cuts, billions of dollars for food stamps and unemployment benefits, and a likely increase in retail-sector jobs as the economy rebounded.

In the final $787 billion stimulus package, $98.3 billion was devoted to infrastructure, while $120.8 billion focused on education, health care, and state budgets. But some progressives remained unconvinced that the bill would deliver relief for low-income women, particularly single mothers. After all, saving existing jobs in education and health care, many of which require a college degree, does little for laid-off women or those toiling in low-paid, part-time, service-sector jobs without benefits.

"The jobs [Romer and Bernstein] count on for reaching gender parity, like 'retail', 'financial activities,' and 'leisure and hospitality' are NOT directly created by the stimulus bill, and are optimistic that the economy actually recovers quickly," wrote Rep. Jared Polis, a freshman Democrat from Colorado, in a statement he posted on his Web site and Facebook page in January. Polis also pointed out that many of the jobs held by women in the construction sector are lower-paying, non-unionized clerical positions: "The truth is that it's extremely difficult to reach gender parity when 20 percent of the money spent is going into an area that benefits 93 plus percent men."

The solution, according to Polis and organizations working on occupational segregation, is for the federal government to fund state-level efforts to train women for higher-paid employment and to financially reward states that ask government contractors to fill a certain number of newly created jobs with women and minorities. "For example, a goal that 10 percent of new hires ought to be women," explains Irasema Garza, president of Legal Momentum, formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "This would not be a quota. Just a goal. We have data that indicates that where there are higher goals, women will come to the worksite to work."

In addition, advocates would like to see the federal government beef up its oversight of contractors' hiring practices. Under the Bush administration, the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance lost a quarter of its field monitors. Currently, contractors are supposed to be working toward a 6.9 percent hiring rate for women, a goal articulated in 1981 and never revised. "We could increase the 6.9 percent. We could increase the money that goes into that office for monitoring," Garza says. "Just doing that, within the accepted system--without going to affirmative action--I think we could make a big difference for the lives of women and other populations that have been traditionally excluded."

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To date, Congress has not tackled these issues as part of economic recovery or budget efforts, but some members, including DeLauro and Polis, are looking to push occupational segregation fixes as part of the reauthorization of the upcoming transportation bill and Worker Investment Act, in addition to a possible second stimulus package. Given conservative aversion to anything that even hints at "affirmative action," the success of these efforts will depend, in part, on whether the Obama administration remains committed to courting GOP support for its economic agenda. Despite aggressive lobbying efforts and compromises from Democrats, no House Republican voted for the February stimulus package.

But feminists are careful to note that efforts to desegregate occupations such as construction are not affirmative action--at least according to the way opponents characterize such policies. "We're not talking about giving women who are not qualified jobs," says Maureen McFadden, a former television journalist who, after the September 11 attacks, founded Legal Momentum's Equality Works project. McFadden had noticed that mainstream news organizations weren't interested in covering the small band of female construction workers and firefighters working at Ground Zero. She now works in communications for the Women's Sports Foundation but has continued to watch how debates about occupational segregation unfold.

After the 9-11 attacks, turmoil in the New York City Fire Department, which lost 343 employees at the World Trade Center, presented an opportunity to reform an "infamously" sexist city agency, McFadden recalls. Legal Momentum worked with the department to prepare women to take the firefighters' test and got the New York City Sports Clubs to donate space for physical training. "More women passed the test than had ever passed before," McFadden says. "Historically, a lot of women at the forefront in these nontraditional jobs were in fact white, overeducated lesbians. ... However, very quickly since the '90s, these jobs turned out to be lifesavers for single mothers--heads of households--often African American."

Advocates argue that like 9-11, the economic crisis has the potential to radically change how certain employers conceive of women workers--but that government must provide the leadership and incentives. Still, some progressives caution that it is neither politically nor economically smart to focus on gender at a time when overall unemployment is so acute. Requirements that worksites employ a certain number of nontraditional workers could slow the hiring process, for example, leading to corresponding slowdowns in consumer spending.

And politically, the faster the stimulus program appears to turn around the economy, the better off progressivism will fare in future battles, argues Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. Efforts to correct occupational segregation are small-bore compared to the benefits of quickly turning around the economy, even if new jobs disproportionately go to men, Mishel says.

"Obama's recovery efforts are an amazing endorsement of using government spending for regulating the business cycle. There have been fights for more than half a century on whether there is a government role here," he continues. "We on the left spend a lot of time advocating things--as we should--that have much smaller impacts than combating 1 or 2 percentage points of unemployment. People ought to keep that in mind. The impact of lowering unemployment by 2 percentage points is much larger than other anti-poverty programs"--such as those addressing occupational segregation.

"There could be African American unemployment and underemployment of 25 to 30 percent early next year," Mishel warns. "This raises questions not only about people getting jobs but about how people are going to survive. About eating and housing."

But women's advocates caution against portraying the economic betterment of women and minorities as an either-or proposition. After all, many of the neediest women are women of color, and many of the highly paid professions traditionally closed to women--such as air-traffic control--are also relatively bereft of men of color.

"As long as we keep pitting men against women, we are going to lose the battle," McFadden says. "Where women are not doing well, in general, diversity is suffering and men of any color other than white are not doing well, either."

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