Obama's stimulus bill and the gender gap in pay.

Women writing about politics, etc.
Feb. 5 2009 1:07 PM

More Stimulating

What if Obama's rescue package tried to address the gender gap in pay, too?

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By contrast, many of the jobs that Obama's economic advisers expect to go to women are in leisure/hospitality and retail. According to their own numbers, both "pay below average." Though the bill includes direct investments in better-paying pink-collar fields like health care and education, many of the funds will be used for activities like making medical records electronic, increasing funding for college loans, and renovating public schools—none of which are likely to create a lot of jobs for women.

To be sure, Congress isn't doing nothing to close the wage gap. The House included, in the version of the stimulus passed last week, $80 million in enforcement funds for the branch of the Labor Department (called the Office of Federal Contract Compliance) that nudges employers who get government contracts to take steps to recruit and train more women. Federally assisted construction contractors with contracts worth more than $10,000, for example, would have to show they've taken "affirmative action steps" to increase their female hires to at least 6.9 percent.

Still, Congress could do much more. Why not require some of the estimated $800-plus billion to go toward creating more high-paying jobs in traditionally female fields rather than just any old jobs? Or specify that employers in sectors dominated by either women or men who get federal contracts make demonstrable efforts to fill 10 percent or 20 percent of the jobs with the opposite sex? Toward that end, the bill could direct more funds toward retraining women for traditionally male-dominated sectors and vice versa. Of course, libertarians might argue that this monkeys too much with the market and requires a lot of unnecessary paperwork and extra hoops for employers to jump through. But if the government is handing over the money to create these jobs in the first place, it shouldn't be shy about trying to ensure that both sexes have an equal shot at getting them.

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There are already some federal programs that help to do this. But they haven't had the money or teeth to be really effective. In 1992, Congress passed the  Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act, which set up a program that awards competitive grants to recruit, hire, train, and retain women, mostly in construction. But the Bush administration cut funding and then proposed eliminating the program altogether as of this coming July. A 2006 law for technical education allows states to use up to 10 percent of a total grant for "preparing students for employment in fields that are traditionally dominated by one gender." The Bush administration requested no funding for this, either, for the 2009 fiscal year.

The Obama administration and Congress can change that. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, wrote a letter to President Obama requesting an increase for both programs. But there's so far been no effort to include that in the stimulus bill. It's a missed opportunity. By pushing employers to look beyond their usual hiring pool, the stimulus could help both men and women looking for work—in different ways. Men, who have lost the majority of jobs in this recession, would have a better shot at finding new ones. And women would have more chances to increase their pay. That sort of bill wouldn't just shrink the rate of unemployment. It could help shrink the gender gap in wages, too.

Jennifer Barrett is a New York-based financial journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Money and Worth. She is also the co-author of The Smart Cookies' Guide to Making More Dough.

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