Jobs for Whom?

Nancy Folbre
12 January 2009

Despite efforts to increase women’s participation in traditionally male jobs, such as construction, occupational segregation in the U.S. remains significant. Why not advocate for “pink jobs” as well as “green” ones?

The case for “green jobs” took off in fall 2008, when my colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) began publicizing their estimates of the potential jobs that could be created by public investments in conservation and alternative energy. I began wondering out loud and on line about the gender composition of the jobs that would be created.

Despite efforts to increase women’s participation in traditionally male jobs, such as construction, occupational segregation in the U.S. remains significant. Why not advocate for “pink jobs” as well as “green” ones–jobs in health, education, and home care that would provide more opportunities for women workers and also offer long run economic benefits?

An op-ed published in the Boston Globe by Randy Albelda made this point forcefully, as did one by Linda Hirshman in the New York Times. A group of feminist historians circulated a letter on line pointing out that President Roosevelt’s New Deal job creation programs were primarily aimed at men. As the graphic above suggests, the National Youth Administration did ask girls if they might be interested in “free classes in occupations.” But only about 20% of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs went to women.

Last Saturday morning President-elect Barack Obama’s economic team published a report claiming that, if anything, the proposed fiscal stimulus would be skewed in favor of women. I am not persuaded by their estimate that women would get 42% of the jobs, which seems to be based on simplistic assumptions regarding the industrial composition of the jobs created. But maybe they know more than I do about the proposed job plans, since presumably they are the ones designing it.

I am more seriously troubled by their careless reasoning regarding the “skew.” I take their point that men have been harder hit by job losses over the last year. Only about 20% of the decline in payroll employment from December 2007 to December 2008 was female. On the other hand, about 34% of the increase in unemployment over that same period was female.

Many women affected by the recession and stock market decline started looking for paid work.  As of December 2008, women represented about 47% of the civilian labor force. (Click for source) As the recession continues, the indirect job losses will mount, and female and male unemployment rates are likely to converge. Keep in mind, also, that women earn less than men but are more likely to be sole supporters of children.

My concerns don’t override my support for the fiscal stimulus plan and, honestly, I’m not sure what the target impact for male vs. female jobs should be. But I am sure that investments in “pink jobs” could yield important benefits (see also Paula England’s op-ed on this point) . If the job-creation plan goes into effect, which I hope it will, we need to  monitor who gets what jobs–and at what wages.

P.S. A great piece on this topic was just posted on Women’s ENews. Plus the comments below make some very important substantive points.

4 comments on "Jobs for Whom?"

  1. Bootstrap Media Preview
    Anna I

    Nancy, this is a great post and I enjoyed reading it!

  2. Bootstrap Media Preview

    Well put, Nancy. Thank you! At Paula England’s suggestion, I wrote something about this that also emphasized the possible benefits of expanded early education — for children, for teachers, and for employed (or unemployed) mothers. That led to more discussion of the family impact of the recession and stimulus. And I wondered, what about a moratorium on time-limiting TANF cases? Anyway, a bunch of that ended up here:

  3. Bootstrap Media Preview
    Barbara Bergmann

    The problems with the Bernstein/Romer claims that women are favored by the
    Obama plan are

    1. A considerable percentage of the jobs women are assumed by this analysis
    to get are not from the first round of the spending , but from subsequent
    rounds of spending, i.e., the “multiplier” effect, when the male
    construction workers spend their pay, supposedly increasing employment in
    wholesale and retail trade, leisure and hospitality. Given spending on
    imports and increased saving, the multiplier will likely be lower than they
    are assuming. The women’s jobs from the first round of spending will be very

    2. They assume that women will get the same percent of the new jobs in each
    industry as their current percentage share in employment. But the women
    (particularly in construction, transport, warehousing) are in the white
    collar office jobs, which will not be expanding along with the blue collar
    jobs, almost all held by men.

    I don’t think we get very far with the press or politicians putting forth
    technical critiques (even valid ones) of the Bernstein/Romer estimates. A
    better strategy would be to keep asking for a revival of the Labor
    Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance programs to give women
    and minorities fair share of jobs created by these programs. OFCCP became a
    dead letter in the Clinton and Bush administrations. Reviving it would have
    important longer term effects.

  4. Bootstrap Media Preview

    Sonya Michel, Historian at University of Maryland suggests the following?

    For every new public works program, officials should be required to do a “gender impact assessment,” as they now assess environmental impacts. Such assessments should consider the gender balance in the jobs required to complete the project and to run it once it is completed. If, for example, the bulk of the work needed to construct a child care center will be done by men but the services it offers will be provided by women, then the project will be in balance. (Note: both types of work should be regarded as of comparable work, and therefore receive equal compensation.) If the care services themselves benefit still other women workers, then the entire project might earn bonus “gender equity credit”—credit which could be traded, like carbon offsets.

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