06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recalibrating the Recovery: Time for Policymakers to Give Women's Work Its Due

Usually, first responders in disaster situations conduct an inventory of the wreckage, debris and injuries and direct their efforts towards areas and victims exhibiting the greatest need: Who is at risk of cardiac arrest? Who is bleeding out so quickly that, without immediate intervention, their very survival is doubtful?

I say "usually" because that instinct - to help those who need help the most - only kicks in when those responders actually identify something as a problem. If they merely accept it as the status quo, they pack up and take the clean water, medical supplies, and food rations elsewhere to seemingly more needy folk, leaving nothing but missed opportunities and worse in their wake.

Unfortunately, for the millions of poor and working class women in America, our national response to the economic crisis has run contrary to the tried and true method of triage. Policymakers focused resources, often with good reason, on the most apparent changes in the status quo. A once-mighty automobile industry on the brink of bankruptcy, seemingly stalwart banks closing up shop, and plummeting unemployment in traditionally male job sectors dominated headlines.

As a result, much of the response to the recession was focused on putting out these obvious fires, meanwhile leaving the long-burning crises of women's poverty untouched.

Now that the smoke is finally clearing, it's high time to reevaluate.
With women accounting for nearly 50 percent of the nation's workforce, and carrying the mantle of breadwinner with increasing regularity, America simply can no longer afford to nonchalantly accept the status quo. Women, at all levels of education, consistently earn less than men; they make up the vast majority of the nation's lowest paid workers; and, not surprisingly, they are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men. More than three decades since the Department of Labor started calling upon construction companies to take proactive steps to hire and retain women workers, women only comprise 2.7% of the workers in this lucrative field. From construction to engineering to mechanical repair, occupational segregation persists, leaving women cut off from work in many lucrative trades.

While we have successfully increased women's participation in the work force and management positions, significant inequalities still persist at all rungs of the salary ladder. Moreover, many of those "advances" proved to be intangible for the millions of poor women in minimum and below-minimum wage jobs, whose salaries and real income stagnated.

A band-aid, piece meal approach is not going to fix this. Over the past 40 years, the Department of Labor and its state and municipal counterparts have set goals for women's participation in varying male-dominated fields and encouraged compliance with various carrots and sticks. Private employers have shared and adopted best practices vis a vis hiring and training women workers.

We can pat ourselves on the back because more women than men are graduating from law schools but only 2% of the US population attends law school -- what we really need is more women in jobs with solid wages and benefits across the spectrum. At this point, this is not a question of morality, or equality, or fairness. Rather, the very economic security of our nation depends on finally doing accurate triage; even before the economic crisis millions of women workers were in low wage jobs with few benefits, if any, and few opportunities to access training and education programs that could provide economic security for them and their families. The economic crises has further exacerbated this situation.

As a society we have mostly moved beyond thinking of women as second-class citizens. The attitude that women's work is superfluous to that of men, however, is harder to shake. Our economic policies are rife with it. Many states refuse to provide unemployment insurance for part-time workers, the vast majority of whom are women, on the notion that these earnings are unnecessary. Women continue to be paid only 78 cents for every dollar men are paid. While the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2008 enabled women who suffer pay discrimination to have legal recourse after the fact, there's still no federal legislation that proactively tackles the problem of the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. Given the vast role women are now playing in the economy, we continue ignoring these problems at our nation's peril.

To be fair, recent legislation passed to address the current economic recession includes provisions that recognize the impact of the crisis on women workers, such as the allocations in education and healthcare funding. But a more fundamental recalibration is needed. When formulating national economic policies, policy makers must do so with a clear understanding that working women's income is no longer a mere supplement to the family income, it is the family income. And that working women are not a bonus to the national economy - they are the national economy!

Policymakers must accurately inventory the impact of the economic crisis and take full account of women's fundamental role in the U.S. economy. Until then, their interventions will continue to perpetuate a corrosive status quo that leaves those most in need without resources or any hope of a real recovery. If we are to come back from this crisis with a stronger and more sure-footed economy, we must address this fundamental miscalculation, and proactively address the crises of women's poverty and employment. Finally, we'll be delivering assistance to the women and families that have been suffering -- out of sight and out of mind -- for decades.