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Got To Work

How the Obama jobs program will really affect women workers.

Will men benefit more from Obama’s jobs program than women?

Looks like the Obama administration is finally remembering who most of its voters were: women. During the early rollout of the Obama jobs program, all the talk was of roads, bridges, and alternative fuel. And as many people quickly noticed, that plan might as well have had the old boys’ club sign posted to it: NO GIRLS ALLOWED. Who builds roads and bridges and invents alternative fuels? Construction workers and engineers. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction trades are approximately 3 percent female and 97 percent male, while engineers are 12 percent female and 88 percent male.

Since the start of the recession, the unemployment rate for women is up by 1.6 percentage points. That is not as dramatic an increase as men’s unemployment (up 2.8 percentage points), but it’s clear that women’s unemployment went up by a factor far greater than 10 percent of the men’s rate, while they would have captured only 10 percent of the jobs, as they were originally described. So in the recession-suffering Olympics, it would have seemed that women were entitled to a little more than 10 percent of the job ointment.

Without ever letting on, of course, the no-drama Obama mantra suddenly began to shift on the stimulus package to include talk of new jobs also going to places where women can sometimes be found, such as “education” and “health care.” Then last Saturday, the president- and vice-president-elect’s chief economic advisers, Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein, released a report on the program, titled “The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan,” which includes an analysis of  the effect of the jobs program on women. The report said almost nothing about any other group.

According to Romer and Bernstein, the jobs program as now conceived will be a veritable estrogen-fest:

The total number of created jobs likely to go to women is roughly 42% of the jobs created by the package. Given that so far in the recession women have accounted for roughly 20% of the decline in payroll employment, this calculation could reflect that the stimulus package skews job creation somewhat toward women, possibly as a result of the investments in healthcare, education, and state fiscal relief.

Doesn’t this sound wrong? Could it possibly be that women have lost only 20 percent of the jobs that have vanished in the last, devastating year? Elsewhere in the report, Romer and Bernstein write that while the overall unemployment rate during the current recession has risen 2.3 percentage points, the unemployment rate for women has increased only 1.6 percentage points. Math may be hard, but that figure still means the unemployment rate for women rose 70 percent as fast as the overall rate. How can that be if they bore only 20 percent of the job losses? Women comprise almost half of the American work force. The two numbers are impossible to reconcile.

What’s the answer? According to Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, the key is that more new women entered the market, looking for work just as, interestingly, men left the job market. He didn’t say it, but I’m guessing that women are pouring into the workplace at least in part because their spouses’ incomes cannot support the family anymore.

Put another way, they need the money. So even though women who are already working didn’t lose jobs as fast as already-working men did, that’s hardly the problem. The real problem is unemployment: people looking for work who can’t find jobs. Here’s an easy way to think about it: If 1,000 Martians came into the job market looking for work, and the market created 100 Martian jobs, that wouldn’t mean the Martians were in good shape because more of them were employed. It would mean the Martians had a 90 percent unemployment rate.

I don’t know why the report minimizes the current recession’s impact on women, although it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the authors would like to mollify their critics, who are, after all, 54 percent of the American electorate. Of course, they would not need to minimize the recession’s gendered impact if their job program were actually as good for women as they say.

I will be surprised, however, if the stimulus turns out to create nearly as many jobs for women as Bernstein and Romer are predicting. Their forecasts include the rosy predictions that the stimulus will create 600,000 “retail” and 500,000 “leisure and hospitality” jobs by the end of next year. Women are heavily represented in retail and leisure and hospitality jobs in general, and that’s why the Romer/Bernstein numbers look so good. But if all the government is really doing is building roads and bridges, the retail work they’ll generate, for example, is more likely to be at the hardware store than at Nieman’s. There’s a reason the Ace worker in those commercials wasn’t called the “Helpful Hardware Woman.” (In fairness, Bernstein and Romer admit that they may be wrong in generalizing from such large categories—”retail”—but they then go on to do it anyway.) Regardless of how you measure it, most of those promised female jobs are only the projection into next year of “indirect” results of government spending this year. By contrast, the report recognizes that the jobs the program creates directly and immediately are overwhelmingly concentrated in the male categories of energy and infrastructure. So watch out for the guys who promise to take you to Nieman’s. Maybe next year.

Happily, now that the Bob the Builder jig is up, there are numerous good ideas out there for ways to achieve agreed-to ends without creating an all-male job program. There is, for instance, a lot of well-meaning talk about trying to force the construction trades to take on women in greater numbers. Some such efforts go back to the Carter administration, others only to 1992. But despite all these programs, the BLS reports that only 3 percent of construction jobs are filled by women. Given the sorry history of such efforts, I’m partial to human infrastructure solutions like this appeal from the American Library Association for money to keep the libraries open. In the downturn, libraries are often people’s only source of computers, places to look for work or draft their résumés, and, as it happens, librarians are overwhelmingly female. Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich also had an interesting suggestion on his blog yesterday for creating a green job corps to call on homeowners and advise them about how to insulate. Sort of like a visiting nurses program. But none of this will get the political attention it deserves unless the Obama people start using real numbers to describe the economy.

Either the Obama administration plans to stimulate the economy by directing government money primarily to male industries, or they know something about numbers that the rest of us don’t. Either way, it’s time we had a jobs programs that recognized immediately that most jobs do not come with a hard hat and that infrastructure means more than just roads.