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?

Is the stimulus package really better for men than for women? That's what many prominent feminists, and even some male economists, are saying. Their charge: That the bulk of the work created would be in testosterone-fueled fields like construction, manufacturing, and engineering. "Where are the new jobs for women?" a New York Times op-ed by Linda Hirshman asked of the 3.5 million jobs promised by the rescue package.  Why not add more in female-friendly fields like child care, education, and social services, asked Barbara Bergmann, vice chair of the Economists' Policy Group for Women's Issues, in an open letter to President Obama that has garnered more than 600 signatures.

But the problem for women with the stimulus bill isn't really that it's short on jobs for them. It's that many of the jobs being generated for women will probably come later and pay far less than the jobs being created in fields dominated by men. In fairness, men could use more help now. They have been hit much harder so far in this recession. And some traditionally female sectors like health care are doing just fine without a cash injection from the government. But that may shift in the coming months; at least 2 million more Americans are expected to get pink slips this year, and in a much wider range of industries. The stimulus plan being considered by the Senate, as it's written now, may make up for some of those losses, gender division aside. But it will do little to close the 20 percent wage gap between men and women or to address the sex segregation in the labor market that accounts for much of it.

Up to 49 percent of the jobs generated by the stimulus bill are expected to go to women, according to Christina Romer, chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. Many of them will be created indirectly and are based on rather optimistic projections, as Hirshman pointed out in Slate. But the ratio still seems generous to women, given that men have accounted for about 80 percent of the job losses so far. (Nearly 800,000 factory jobs alone were lost in 2008, and almost 900,000 construction jobs have disappeared since the peak of the housing boom in 2006.) Altogether, about 1.1 million fewer men are working in the United States now than a year ago.

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Women, on the other hand, have gained about as many jobs as they've lost, according to economist Andrew Sum. Female-dominant fields like health care have actually been hiring more than firing, and that's not likely to change. Nearly a dozen of the Labor Department's estimated 30 fastest-growing occupations are in health care—from home health aides to dental hygienists to physician assistants. Other traditionally female occupations make the fastest-growing list as well, including makeup artists, manicurists, and skin-care specialists. (The country will be poor, but well-groomed.)

The problem is that many of the jobs in these female-dominated fields pay far less than the jobs being created for men by the stimulus plan. By the Obama team's own estimates, nearly one-third of the jobs generated by the package will be in construction or manufacturing. These sectors pay above average in part because they're filled largely by union workers. The already small percentage of women who work in these fields tend to fill the positions that pay the least. Women in construction don't often go out in hard hats; they sometimes sit behind the desk and answer phones—about half of the jobs in the construction industry filled by women are low-wage clerical jobs. And these don't come with union membership. Similarly, the money for green energy is expected to produce more jobs that pay well above average, like electricians and engineers—and that typically go to men.

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