Will The Recession Make Workplace Equity Better For Women?

In 2005, economists noticed that the last recession (in 2001) helped reduce the wage gap between men and women to the lowest level in decades. What will this recession do for women?

Well, according to Catherine Rampell's New York Times article today, it might well make the U.S. labor market majority-female for the first time ever.

Women are poised to surpass men on the nation's payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history.

The reason has less to do with gender equality than with where the ax is falling.The proportion of women who are working has changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.

With more and more men losing their jobs, women are becoming majority- or sole-breadwinners in even two-adult households. The question that remains, though, is who is washing the dishes these days.

While women appear to be sole breadwinners in greater numbers, they are likely to remain responsible for most domestic responsibilities at home.

On average, employed women devote much more time to child care and housework than employed men do, according to recent data from the government's American Time Use Survey analyzed by two economists, Alan B. Krueger and Andreas Mueller.

When women are unemployed and looking for a job, the time they spend daily taking care of children nearly doubles. Unemployed men's child care duties, by contrast, are virtually identical to those of their working counterparts, and they instead spend more time sleeping, watching TV and looking for a job, along with other domestic activities.

I guess more the things change, the more they stay the same!

Of course, there remain questions about the gender equity of the stimulus plan, which is intended to create jobs in industries that are shedding them — which, as Rampell points out, are most male-dominated. Jennifer Barrett at Slate thinks, like Linda Hirshman, that this could be a bad thing, but there aren't easy solutions. Barrett says:

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.

And if you thought it was expensive before, just wait until the stimulus plan tries to fix thousands of years of labor market sex segregation. Barrett notes that, while 49 percent of the jobs set to be created by the stimulus plan are expected to go to women despite the current wide disparity in job losses, most of those jobs will be in fields in which women already work (which is sort of the point of the stimulus, to get people back to working as quickly as possible). She says:

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.

Not that re-training programs put people to work quickly, or Barrett's example of forcing women who supposedly previous worked in health care or nail salons to take construction jobs are actually desired outcomes. But it might reduce the wage gap! So it must be good, apparently.

It does make me wonder, however, if this isn't accepting a basic premise about the wage gap that men apparently already believe:

In a new Rasmussen poll, 78 percent of American women said that "men and women do not receive equal pay for equal work in the United States." Only 53 percent of men agreed. In the same poll, 49 percent of women attributed the unequal pay to discrimination while only 20 percent of men believe discrimination is the problem.

First, that it doesn't really exist — that it's about the choices women make, on average, and there's certainly some of that — and that it's not due to discrimination. I can't speak for all women, but I know that, in at least two jobs in which I replaced men in the same capacity, I made on average about 20% less than my predecessors after a similar period of time in the position while significantly expanding the scope and responsibility of the position. And I left both jobs because of it. But, technically, now I make less doing something I enjoy more. So I've been on both ends of that spectrum, and while I may have one of the most female-dominated jobs around (know many male bloggers who write for women's websites?), I can certainly tell you that I wouldn't trade it for a construction job with better pay and benefits. There are some wage gaps I don't ever care about making up.

Slowdown In Male Earnings Leads To Smaller Gender Wage Gap [Economic Policy Institute]
As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force [New York Times]
More Stimulating [Slate]
78 Percent Of Women Say Men And Women Do Not Receive Equal Pay For Equal Work [ThinkProgress]

Earlier: No, Barack Obama's Economic Plan Is Not Discriminating Against Women