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spring 2009

Up With Women in the Downturn

The current economic disaster belongs to everyone, but in the stimulus package gender differences were not forgotten.

By Randy Albelda

Economic downturns like the one we are currently facing are equal-opportunity disasters. This is not a “man’s recession” or a "woman’s recession." Nonetheless, gender differences play out within this financial crisis.

A good deal of work in our paid economy—and also the unpaid work in homes—is still sex-segregated. Blue-collar jobs remain primarily the province of men (87 percent of all construction jobs and 70 percent of all manufacturing jobs in 2008) while administrative work is still largely done by women (75 percent in 2008), as are care services. Women last year held 89 percent of health-care support jobs and 79 percent of personal-care jobs. While professional and managerial jobs are held almost equally by men and women, some professional occupations remain stubbornly women-dominated, such as teaching and nursing.

Given the realities of women’s place in the U.S. economy, when then-President-elect Obama first proposed a stimulus package late last year, feminists were concerned. It promoted “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, which could preclude many women from newly created jobs since the construction and manufacturing sectors are so male-dominated. If the package were only geared toward these sectors it would be a “macho” stimulus, disproportionately employing men while ignoring other crucial investments in human infrastructure.

But thanks to lobbying by women’s advocacy groups for attention to the place of women in the U.S. economy, Obama’s stimulus bill offered women a good deal in terms of targeted funds to sectors in which women are employed as well as in human infrastructure investments. But more needs to be done, including protection for women during the current debt crisis in the country.

Women also need to know that the safety net of unemployment insurance will hold them in a time of need. But unfortunately, like other safety nets such as food stamps and cash assistance, that net has some gaping holes in it through which women can fall through. In 2007, only 37 percent of unemployed workers actually received unemployment benefits, and those with lesser pay—women, usually—are less likely to meet the requirements.

Obama’s stimulus provides a jump start to recovery, and a serious recognition of women’s needs at this time. However, to address the structural problems that caused this deep recession—as well as to rebuild the set of supports that women (and men) need when they lose their jobs or don’t earn enough to support themselves—will require substantially more effort.

Excerpted from the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. - join the ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.

RANDY ALBELDA is a professor of economics and senior research fellow at the Center for Social Policy at University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is coauthor of Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women’s Work, Women’s Poverty, Unlevel Playing Fields: Understanding Wage Inequality and Wage Discrimination (South End Press, 1999), and The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual (New Press, 1996).