We've heard a lot recently about how this recession is affecting men's jobs more than women's. But while women's relative labor-force participation rises in recessions, most of the jobs women hold on to earn small wages and low status. In the long-term, recessions can have very negative effects on women's careers -- both at the individual and national levels. Gains for women earned through years of effort may be swept away in the undertow of layoffs, when flexibility and diversity efforts suddenly disappear.
Women's movement up business ladders and through glass ceilings is endangered right now. Early reports suggest that on Wall Street, a disproportionate number of women overall and almost all those hired in through firms' "opt-in" programs to work flex time have been let go. Little thought is being given to maintaining diversity as layoff decisions are made. This could have huge negative effect long-term. One financial insider (who requests anonymity in sensitive times) observes about the downturn: "In this industry, it definitely set women's progress back at least 20 years."
The current issue of Forbes documents a resurgence of sexism in the finance field -- "In the worst financial crash since the Depression, financial services and insurance firms have cut 260,000 jobs. Seventy-two percent of the missing workers laid off have been women, even though they constituted 64% of employment before the crash began."
Women overall earn a lot less than men do because many industries are still strongly sex-segregated, often because women with kids need part-time or otherwise flexible work. Historically the jobs offering such arrangements have paid less.
But the professions are not as gendered as they used to be, and some women do make high wages. Additionally, once sufficient numbers of women reach positions of influence within business and government, they change the gender-dynamics of the workplace at all levels, introducing family-friendly policies and challenging the gendering of the pay structure. The work still gets done, but on a new, more flexible schedule. It takes a while to establish these new dynamics, which allow women to contribute more fully to the national economy.
While women comprise only 15.2% of boards of directors and 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, they hold 50.6% of professional and management positions. As a result, 79% of businesses reported offering some flex options in 2008, the pay equity bill is now law, and we have several initiatives in Congress to put all workers on an equal playing field.
Progress has been made, but the recession could halt it, and not just in the finance world. In troubled economic times the historical tendency has been to send the ladies with higher-status jobs back home, or down ladder, pushing them out not just through individual actions but through policy changes and negative media messages.
In the Depression, working women were scapegoated for men's lack of jobs, and the group's career progress was set back for decades. Similarly, in the recessions of the 70s and 80s and in this decade, women's progress up ladder was slowed by a hostile environment that paralyzed the EEOC, undermined access to abortion and birth control, and portrayed women's job losses as the result of a choice to stay home.
When recessions past ended, laid-off men returned to good jobs. Women remained largely in dead-end, low-wage work. With their collective status diminished, post-recessionary women had less ability to influence business policy than before the recession, and the system remained biased in favor of people without care-giving commitments (remember that these are not "merely personal" commitments, they are essential to the running of the nation). Eventually the trickle up began again, but the recessionary cycle ensured that it remained just a trickle. Recessionary setbacks have been a big part of the answer to the question "Why has women's progress been so slow?" The Wall Street example makes it clear that long-term setbacks could occur again now.
Can we break the recessionary pattern? Absolutely.
Firstly, as Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute notes, flexibility has suddenly become a mainstream business strategy for companies seeking to retain current workers rather than having to start from scratch with new employees come the upturn. Reduced hours are among the cut-backs on the table, until things improve. President Obama endorsed that option in his Inaugural speech, and the savings to the nation when people stay in jobs speak for themselves.
Reduced hours may look like automatic family friendliness, but if the reduction is entirely on the employers' terms it doesn't help parents in need of flexibility much more than the standard workweek did. If employers work with employees, male and female, in devising reduced schedules, all parties gain.
And the government can assist. In 17 states, a Shared Work program helps employees and employers who must reduce hours by paying pro-rated unemployment benefits. In 2008 in New York 83% more employers participated in this program than in 2007, and a 2009 surge is already underway. In Texas the program is little known, but word is spreading. This option makes much more sense than layoffs in many environments and should be available nationwide.
Where potential savings on worker health care pushes employers to consider cutting workers they might prefer to cut hours for, government should cover the difference.
A second break with old patterns lies in society's enormous capital investment in women's education and in the extensive work experience women now have. Like any other form of capital, business leaders should find ways to utilize this human capital in a downturn. Smart employers will make every effort to hold onto their best talent, whatever the worker's gender.
Thirdly, the enormity of the failure of the business culture of greed means the time is ripe to rewrite the model and move toward a culture of care. Rather than view the downturn as reason to turn away from initiatives that support women's participation in better-paid jobs, the nation will be best served if we redouble our efforts in that direction, to take advantage of our full national talent pool.
It's time for new ideas and big pictures. In today's troubled economy, one way business and government can collaborate to keep workers, male and female, employed is by cutting hours instead of jobs, at all levels. One by-product could be that the old recessionary patterns that slow women's progress up career ladders finally fall away. But we're going to have to work actively and intentionally to make that happen.
Elizabeth Gregory is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books); she teaches at the University of Houston.