Stereotypes abound when it comes to the assessment of women's worth in the workplace. In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, Lisa Belkin analyzes the emerging trends facing women in the recession - and how these perceptions benefit and hurt us.

Belkin begins by pointing out an uncomfortable truth:

[I]t is also unsettling to face the fact that so much of the history of women in the workplace (both their leaps forward and their slips back) is a reaction to what was happening to men.

That was the case in the 1930s, when working women were dismissed so that they didn't take jobs from able-bodied males with families to support. During the 1940s women were invited back in, a replacement work force when the men went to war. By the 1950s and into the '60s women lost their higher-paying blue-collar jobs and took lower-paying ones in the expanding retail and service sectors or returned home; in the 1970s the most ambitious among them rebelled - a period when women truly commandeered the train and drove it forward, often sacrificing dreams of children to get ahead. By the 1980s mothers worked because of the growing feeling that households needed two incomes, and the realization dawned that the workplace was designed to fit the life of a man with a wife at home rather than a woman juggling work and family.

As times have progressed, women have made modest gains in the workplace, but true equality still eludes us. Issues like equal pay, adequate child care, and the penalty for opting out of the workforce to raise a family still plague workers, but have also acted as a somewhat unwelcome benefit:

Primarily, women are still cheaper. They earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man, and in a flailing economy employers see that as an attractive quality. Women who are returning to the work force after several years at home raising children are particularly cheap. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, has estimated that the penalty is 10 percent of income for every two years out of the job market, a loss that is never recouped. From the hiring side of the table, that may be a good bargain.

In addition, women are concentrated in lower-paying industries, like health care and education, where there have been fewer layoffs, rather than in higher-paying realms, like finance, construction and manufacturing, which have contracted. Why this is true has long been an economic chicken-and-egg question - are these professions less lucrative and prestigious because they are predominantly held by women, or are they predominantly held by women because men are less likely to take them given their lower pay and status? But whatever the cause, the end result is that the "female" professions have not suffered as much this past year.

In addition to the fact that women workers are seen as cheaper, we're also apparently big on commitment:

When choosing among overqualified applicants for a position, employers often seem more comfortable hiring a woman for a step-down job. Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, says women might be seen as less resentful about taking a job with less money and authority, and they might also be less likely to bolt if something better comes along. Especially "if a woman is coming back to work and has had difficulty finding a job, the assumption is she is going to be more grateful than the man," she says.

But David Zinzecko's concept of the he-cession is still a ways off the mark - according to studies, successful, high earning women are being laid off at the same rates as men.

As Belkin concludes:

It is not good news when women surpass men because women are worth less. Perversely, real progress might come when we reach the place where a financial wallop means women lose as much ground as men.

The New Gender Gap [New York Times]

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