In the 1940's, when the U.S. needed to increase mass production of war materials during World War II, huge numbers of women across the country were mobilized and trained in factory and technical jobs. Women entered and championed this sector in a matter of months, and in addition to winning the greatest war in history, an effect of this was an increase in the standard of living for both men and women in our nation. The challenges that America faces today - reviving a flagging economy, rebuilding a crumbling infrastructure and beating the clock on global climate change - are no less ambitious, and require a similar mobilization of all we can muster.
The recently passed $787 billion stimulus package aims to meet those challenges. A massive portion of this bill is an effort to enact the largest investment in our nation's roads, bridges and mass transit systems since the creation of Eisenhower's national highway system. The lining up of thousands of infrastructure, construction and green jobs has in turn begged the question of whether men are being disproportionately, well, 'stimulated' in this stimulus. If this is the case, as it looks to be, it just may be our chance to break the gender stereotypes in these fields and pave the roads of opportunity for a new generation of American working women.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women made up 48.7% of the labor force in 2007, the disparities in female representation in the fields of construction, engineering, and manufacturing remain vast. Women represent a mere 9% of workers in construction, and most 'green collar' professions like architecture, engineering, and agriculture are also typically male-dominated fields.
In a recent New York Times article, Linda Hirshman suggests programs encouraging women to pursue non-traditional careers such as engineering have traditionally had a lack of success. She argues that instead, we must add programs to the package which include more education and child care workers, and therefore create more opportunity for traditionally female dominated jobs. In the short-term, I agree. But if our long-term goal is to break down the barriers of established gender employment roles, we must not settle for perpetuation of the status quo. As we push to increase funding for professions such as social workers, victim advocates, childcare workers, & teachers, we must equally push for programs that train our daughters to be the next generation of architects, businesswomen, engineers and leaders.
I am calling for Congress to make the following items priorities immediately after passing the stimulus: 1) a renewed focus on the Department of Labor's Women in Apprenticeship and Non-traditional Occupations (WANTO) grant program that "awards competitive grants to recruit, hire, train, and retain women in apprenticeships and non-traditional occupations"; 2) an increase in the Perkins Act of 2006 which helps states prepare students for jobs in areas that are typically dominated by a certain gender; and 3) requiring federal construction firms to apply programs that hire and keep qualified female employees. Over time, these steps will help to eliminate gender disparities, while also bolstering the job market as programs encourage and recruit new talent.
As we face our own set of hardships ahead, the stimulus serves as an opportunity to both confront gender disparities and revitalize employment in America. This is our nation's chance to offer a mix of jobs and programs that would challenge traditional employment roles, while also training the next generation of female engineers, entrepreneurs and leaders.