How the Obama jobs program will affect women workers.

Women writing about politics, etc.
Jan. 13 2009 1:41 PM

Got To Work

How the Obama jobs program will really affect women workers.

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I don't know why the report minimizes the current recession's impact on women, although it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the authors would like to mollify their critics, who are, after all, 54 percent of the American electorate. Of course, they would not need to minimize the recession's gendered impact if their job program were actually as good for women as they say.

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I will be surprised, however, if the stimulus turns out to create nearly as many jobs for women as Bernstein and Romer are predicting. Their forecasts include the rosy predictions that the stimulus will create 600,000 "retail" and 500,000 "leisure and hospitality" jobs by the end of next year. Women are heavily represented in retail and leisure and hospitality jobs in general, and that's why the Romer/Bernstein numbers look so good. But if all the government is really doing is building roads and bridges, the retail work they'll generate, for example, is more likely to be at the hardware store than at Nieman's. There's a reason the Ace worker in those commercials wasn't called the "Helpful Hardware Woman." (In fairness, Bernstein and Romer admit that they may be wrong in generalizing from such large categories—"retail"—but they then go on to do it anyway.) Regardless of how you measure it, most of those promised female jobs are only the projection into next year of "indirect" results of government spending this year. By contrast, the report recognizes that the jobs the program creates directly and immediately are overwhelmingly concentrated in the male categories of energy and infrastructure. So watch out for the guys who promise to take you to Nieman's. Maybe next year.

Happily, now that the Bob the Builder jig is up, there are numerous good ideas out there for ways to achieve agreed-to ends without creating an all-male job program. There is, for instance, a lot of well-meaning talk about trying to force the construction trades to take on women in greater numbers. Some such efforts go back to the Carter administration, others only to 1992. But despite all these programs, the BLS reports that only 3 percent of construction jobs are filled by women. Given the sorry history of such efforts, I'm partial to human infrastructure solutions like this appeal from the American Library Association for money to keep the libraries open. In the downturn, libraries are often people's only source of computers, places to look for work or draft their résumés, and, as it happens, librarians are overwhelmingly female. Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich also had an interesting suggestion on his blog yesterday for creating a green job corps to call on homeowners and advise them about how to insulate. Sort of like a visiting nurses program. But none of this will get the political attention it deserves unless the Obama people start using real numbers to describe the economy.

Either the Obama administration plans to stimulate the economy by directing government money primarily to male industries, or they know something about numbers that the rest of us don't. Either way, it's time we had a jobs programs that recognized immediately that most jobs do not come with a hard hat and that infrastructure means more than just roads.

Linda Hirshman is the author of the (entirely appropriately named)  Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, coming June 5. www.gayvictorybook.com.