If you looked at the past year's stories about the recent economic collapse and ongoing recovery, you'd think that women across the country were in a much stronger situation than their male counterparts. At the close of 2009, Maria Shriver had helmed a groundbreaking report on a "Women's Nation," saying that "emergent economic power gives women a new seat at the table--at the head of the table." At the end of February this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures showing the unemployment rate for men at 10 percent and the rate for women at 7.9 percent. And just recently, another pithy New York Times article labeled the current economic climate a "man-cession." These examples seemingly describe a recession in which women are faring better than men. But if this modern "man-cession" label proves to be as accurate as 2005's "opt out" label, chances are these stories obscure the real situation of most women in this economy.
True, men have lost more jobs than women in the past two years. There is a reason for that. Men are more likely to work in industries that are affected by downturns in the economy, such as manufacturing and construction. Women are more likely to work in government, education and health care, all typically "strong" industries in recessions. But employment statistics alone do not adequately describe the economic situation of women. If we look harder at the types of jobs women have in these so-called "strong" industries, we see that women are concentrated in clerical, administrative, or support positions. And if we look at additional trends, such as state budgets collapsing across the country, deep cuts are occurring exactly where women work - state governments, education and human services.
We also have to consider how systemic wage inequity contributes to a woman's financial bottom line. A man making $75,000 a year may lose his job, contributing a number to the male unemployment rate. But a woman in the exact same position making $57,750 (77 cents for every dollar the man earns) may very well keep her job because she is being paid less. One of the biggest factors to women becoming a workforce majority is that their labor is still not valued at the same level as that of a comparable man.
It's natural to look for a silver lining during economic downturns - and the story that women seem to be faring better than men in this economic climate is a nice one. But the sobering truth is that working women are shouldering the brunt of this recession. Before we celebrate the "historic accomplishment" of women gaining a workforce majority, which is merely a celebration of numbers, let's improve the quality of women's work and see that women achieve something even more historic: an equal wage, a living wage and real work that is valued just as much as a man's.
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