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.

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.

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.

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.

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