It’s Long Past Time for the U.S. to Invest in Women Workers

The Great Recession brought an onslaught of unemployment throughout the United States—and the industries most severely affected were those dominated by men. During the recession, men lost almost 50 percent more jobs than women, leading economists to call the era a “mancession.” Although the Great Recession can surely not be understood to have been a positive time for women in the workforce, it demonstrated the resiliency and importance of women in the U.S. economy. But the recovery told a different story.

During the first two years of recovery, women lost 218,000 jobs while men gained 768,000. This lopsided recovery took shape, in part, because of the the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which focused on revitalizing industries like manufacturing and infrastructure repair that were dominated by men. (While new lumps of money were put towards creating jobs in various sectors, for example, many local government offices saw their budgets slashed—and women lost 297,000 government jobs. Men lost 133,000.)

Recovery efforts were focused on rebuilding the industries that had just collapsed, instead of supporting those that fared well in times of economic duress. Budget cuts also impacted sectors that employed women in order to justify spending in sectors dominated by men—a decision that relied on the “breadwinner” ideology, which enabled both private industry and the government to prioritize the employment of men over women based on the assumption that men were providing for their families and women were not. This phenomena is reminiscent of the period after World War II, when women were forced out of their jobs to make room for men who truly “needed” them.

Let’s not mince words: The “breadwinner” ideology is not reflected in the reality of the lives of U.S. families. 40 percent of all households with minor children have women at the helm, either as sole or primary breadwinners. Amidst times of economic recession, jobs are given to those that are perceived to need them the most: men. But data shows that the recovery should have aimed to support women in the workforce instead.

Throughout the twentieth century, women’s labor was used to fill the nation’s social needs. During the early 1900s, women were expected to stay in the home to manage and care for their families. During World War II, they filled the factories to fuel wartime industry—and were subsequently forced from their jobs when men returned from war. But just as the 1950s idealized the life of the housewife, the 1960s saw a moment of female liberation—and during the late twentieth century, largely due to women joining the scene, the economy expanded. Women continued to join the paid workforce in record numbers until about 2000, when their rates began to level off.

In times of crisis, we have repeatedly watch women step up to the plate and successfully maintain the workforce, only to be asked to leave once their prescribed duty is complete. Women-owned businesses were less likely to downsize during the Great Recession, and they managed to keep employees on the books at rates as high as 29 percent more than those that men owned. (Such statistics are not unique, as it has repeatedly been shown that women business owners lay off less employees in times of economic hardship.) Women have repeatedly demonstrated that the industries they dominate fare better, and women business leaders have better track records of retaining employees—yet the women who helped stabilize the economy through the recession are not feeling the benefits of the stimulus since. According to special report by the California Budget Project, “women have been slow to re-enter the workforce [since the Great Recession], and wage growth will likely remain modest until unemployment drops to a normal level.”

These misfires are no accident, and these policies can be largely attributed to the lack of women implementing economic policy. On February 5, Jerome Powell was sworn in as chair of the Federal Reserve, replacing Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold the position. Donald Trump’s decision to not re-nominate Yellen reflects the government’s long-standing refusal to include women in the economic sphere—and shows that much work lies ahead in not only overcoming sexism, but also advancing the nation’s economy.

The presence of women in the workforce has proved stabilizing in times of economic turmoil. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act missed the opportunity to build upon the strength of the women established during the recession—and because of this, both men and women have suffered immensely. Until economic policies invest in women’s real economic worth, that suffering will continue.




Audrey Andrews is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is an archaeologist, runner and feminist. Audrey graduated from Columbia University.