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The Other Side of the 'Mancession': Women Left Behind

09/24/2010 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

As construction and manufacturing jobs crumble, many have dubbed this downturn a "mancession." It's even prompted some to declare that we are facing the "end of men." But women shouldn't celebrate their economic victory just yet. It's true that men have lost more jobs than women -- according to Newsweek, they've made up for two thirds of the 11 million jobs lost since it all began. But are women getting left out of President Obama's job programs and stimulus spending? They hold only 12% of the total US engineering jobs and 25% of manufacturing and construction jobs. Yet a study by the United States Conference of Mayors found that half of the projected new "green" jobs being created by stimulus programs will be in heavily male-dominated areas such as engineering, consulting, manufacturing, construction and forestry. Infrastructure spending, such as Obama's recent proposal, will also be funneled toward construction and manufacturing work, where few women find employment. These programs are putting people back to work and rebuilding our physical infrastructure, creating jobs that are sorely needed. But will women be an unintended casualty?

While men felt the brunt of the initial bubble burst, traditionally female-heavy industries such as nursing and education are now getting slashed in the wake of falling state revenues, points out Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and Chair of the Department of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara. High unemployment has hit states' tax bases and tapped them out for benefits, so they're looking to save anywhere they can. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has estimated that these budget cuts imperil 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs. Hospitals have had to shut their doors in the face of mounting debt loads. Women are highly concentrated in these suffering industries. As of 2009, 2.6 million women worked as registered nurses and 2.3 million as elementary and middle school teachers, making up for 82% of all teachers, according to the Department of Labor. And while some of the stimulus money went to propping up Medicaid programs and schools, indirectly saving women's jobs, it never created new ones, Boris adds.

And just because men find themselves without jobs, it doesn't mean women are making strides, Mary Gatta, Director of Gender and Workforce Policy at the Center for Women at Rutgers, points out. Women started out at a disadvantage long before the recession. They often work lower wage jobs, support their families and -- more and more often -- relatives, and experience a wage gap compared to male peers across all industries. And Jennifer Klein, professor of history at Yale University, adds that women often work in "precarious" jobs with irregular hours and low benefits. Women's unemployment is "incredibly significant right now," she says, not just because so many are heads of household -- over 20% in 2000 and trending upwards -- but because these days two working parents are necessary to keep most families financially afloat.

Unfortunately, there is historical precedent here. FDR's groundbreaking public work programs, such as the CCC and CWA, had dismal numbers on including women. Only 8,500 women were employed in the CCC, compared to about 3 million men. The WPA was slightly better (after advocates like Eleanor Roosevelt pushed hard for inclusion), employing 460,000 women at its peak in 1936, but still put women to work on projects specifically for them: sewing, nursing, housekeeping, etc. These tended to be lower-skilled and lower-wage jobs than construction work. Public policy was shaped this way because, just as in this recession, people thought that women weren't suffering from unemployment as much as men, Klein explains. But she points out that "women were in the workforce and certainly unemployed during the Depression... It was just a question of whose unemployment was prioritized." It is estimated that more than 2 million women were unemployed at the start of 1933. There was also a pervasive social stereotype that cast men as the sole breadwinners and women as dependents, even if that "didn't necessarily correspond to reality and for millions of families," says Klein.

Beyond false social assumptions, there are political reasons that led both FDR and Obama to focus spending on construction jobs. Linda Gordon, professor of history at NYU, points out that such jobs have visible results, which were an imperative for both presidents as they faced strong opposition to their programs. Just take a drive up the Hudson River Parkway in New York, Gordon suggests, and you will soon see beautiful bridge after beautiful bridge thanks to the New Deal. These projects also have a multiplier effect, as they don't just employ bridge builders, but also steel workers who make the raw materials. In women-heavy industries, which Gordon calls the "caring professions" and the "educational professions," it's hard to quantify the beneficial effects. No one can agree on what makes a "good" teacher -- see the fracas over a recent attempt by the LA Times -- but it's pretty easy to tell how much a bridge costs and whether it works. How much is a well-educated child worth? How do you quantify a comfortable old age? How much should we pay for librarians who bring literacy to their communities?

But there are indeed multiplier effects in investing in woman-heavy industries, whether or not they are as easy to quantify. While few doubt that America's infrastructure is badly in need of repair and that we're being outmatched in green innovation, we also have to invest in what Gordon calls the "human infrastructure." Instead of nonprofit groups like Teach for America throwing college grads into classrooms, the government can invest in making that person a teacher's assistant, simultaneously training a new teacher while easing another's workload. Less-skilled workers can be employed in libraries to take some work off of the higher-skilled librarians, who can focus on archival tasks. There is a tremendous need for elder care in this country as the population ages and more families support older relatives. But care facilities are often understaffed and the staff is underpaid, leading to poor care, she adds. And meanwhile these jobs -- health care workers, child caretakers, even waitresses -- are "here to stay," because they're hard to outsource, says Gatta. Investing in these jobs keeps the money in our own economy.

It's also important that government spending on jobs programs doesn't perpetuate the segregation of the labor market. The New Deal assumed that women couldn't or wouldn't work in construction. But women are perfectly capable of participating in the green economy, says Amy Norquist, President and CEO of green roofing company Greensulate. "I think the barriers are more related to re-training oneself to address the needs of a new kind of industry," she says. Stephanie Hass, Fund Development Associate at STRIVE, a job training organization that has a program for women in green construction, agrees. "When you say construction, [women] imagine themselves on a site and lifting heavy stuff, but I think there's a lot of different opportunities." The same was true during the 1930s, Gordon says. During World War II, when factory jobs were heavily staffed by women, "women loved these jobs." At the end of the war, when the jobs were being handed back to the returning men, around 80% of women said they would keep their factory job if they could. The CCC was overwhelmed with applications from women. "It certainly is not true that women don't like to work outdoors," Gordon says. But in order for women to have equal access to those jobs, they need access to training and education programs. That requires outreach to women to let them know what's available. "I think women can, should and will play a big part in this -- especially in finding ways to innovate," Norquist says.

At the same time, none of this should come at the expense of the jobs women already hold, warns Boris. We need to make sure more jobs are created in women-heavy industries and ensure that the jobs they already hold are livable. Women are heavily concentrated in jobs with low pay, with 1.7 million working as nursing home aides, 1.3 million as maids and housekeepers, and 1.2 million as child care workers, according to DOL. Meanwhile, the quality of these workers' jobs is being degraded by an industry speed-up, Gordon points out. Classrooms are packed with more and more students. Nurses handle more patients while their hours and pay stay the same. These service and care jobs need to be improved so that they have livable wages and benefits, as well as access to career ladders, Gatta says. They should be revalued by making sure they pay a living wage, fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and be allowed to unionize, Boris says. Women also need access to child care so that they can pursue these careers. These jobs should be revalued -- for, after all, "The world can't work without them!" Boris adds.

So where does this leave us? While the first wave of layoffs may have been dumped on men's shoulders, perhaps the "mancession" has ended -- because now we're all affected. The stimulus projects and green collar jobs need to continue. But we can -- and must -- open up our policies to make sure they cover us all.

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