Up With Women in the Downturn

Thanks to lobbying by women's advocacy groups, 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.

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.

Chinese proverb "Women hold up half the sky" provides a good starting
point to understand the current place of women in the U.S. economy,
and thus the differential impact they face from this downturn. But which
of the sky are women holding up? 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

the rise in women’s paid employment – women are now just less than
half of all paid workers, whereas in 1960 they were only one-third – has
been a corresponding rise in women-headed households. In 1960, 18 percent
of households were headed by a woman who was divorced, widowed or had
never married; by 2007 women-headed households had risen to 30 percent
of all households. Even within married-couple households, women’s
earnings comprise an ever-larger share of total income: In 1970, women
contributed 27 percent of household earnings, but by 2006 the percentage
had risen to 37 percent.

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.

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. Key provisions
include $144 billion to state and local governments-including large
amounts for education and Medicaid, $53 billion for other education
and training and $59 billion for health care. There is an increase in
unemployment benefits and the length of time unemployed workers can
collect, but equally important to women workers are incentives for states
to extend unemployment benefits to low-wage and part-time workers – which
tend to be women.

low-income families (about half of which are single-mother families),
the stimulus bill includes $4 billion for childcare, an increase of
$20 billion in food stamps benefits and increased cash assistance for
needy families. Of the $288 billion in tax cuts included in the stimulus,
a good portion are directed specifically at low-income workers and parents,
all of which will help women, especially single mothers.

more needs to be done, including protection for women during the current
debt crisis in the country. The declining value of homes and pensions
in this downturn has affected everyone, but women – especially those
of color – are overrepresented among those experiencing the subprime
mortgage meltdown. Many of those women didn’t just make a poor mortgage
decision: They were targeted by purveyors of high-risk loans,
even though, on average, women have better credit ratings than men.
About one-third of women borrowers held subprime mortgages in 2006 compared
to one-quarter (24 percent) of men. African American women were 2.5
times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white and Latina 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.

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.

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