…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Reporting on Gender Inequality and the Recession: There’s Nothing More Manly Than a Pink Slip

by Meg White

As workers and the unemployed alike fret over news that jobless numbers may be the last economic indicator to rebound from this recession, some newspapers seek out rosier undertones of the economic crisis. Tales of Americans’ new savings accounts and the appeal of simplified lifestyles abound.

I have no problem with the media finding good news in our collective stiff upper lip. But sometimes the search for the bright side goes a bit too far. And who better to take that step than good ol’ USA Today?

USA Today women's jobs recessionAs the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand something-or-others. If you look at the image of USA Today’s front page story, you’ll see a prime example of one of those “Sure this recession thing sucks, but here’s a silver lining in it for the ladies” stories. The scales are literally tipping in our favor, according to this graph.

(I couldn’t find the image in the online version of the story, but you can click on the image to the left for a closer look. Don’t worry fair reader, I didn’t actually go out and buy a copy of USA Today, but rather utilized this really cool project that scans the front pages of major newspapers around the world and displays them online each day.)

What this story really is, however, is a case of misplaced optimism. The “historic” gains reporter Dennis Cauchon refers to amount to a net loss.

I have to give credit where the small amount of credit is due: Cauchon did take the time to call up an economist at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research who noted that “on average, women work fewer hours than men, hold more part-time jobs and earn 77% of what men make,” and that “men also still dominate higher-paying executive ranks.”

Upon further scrutiny, the balancing scales on the front page just seem silly. By applying some basic business logic, one finds this story is about detriment in several ways. First, employers are more likely to lay off the top earners at their companies because they’ll save more money that way. When women are doing the same job as men for less, that means women get the honor of sticking around in tough times (and often picking up the slack). Stay-at-home moms also tend to pick up the slack when their husbands lose high-powered positions, often because of their perceived willingness to take on a part-time job that might be below their pay scale.

Another reason women seem to be doing better in this recession is a byproduct of uneven gender roles in particular sectors of American industry. The article notes that the industries which have taken the hardest hits in this recession are ones that are still male-dominated, such as construction. This illustrates the fact that our culture has a long way to go before we have truly equal access to opportunities in the work world.

But it shows something else, too. As the article also points out (almost by accident it seems), men are switching over to industries with better growth potential, such as healthcare and education:

“Unemployment among men isn’t going to last forever,” says University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan. “People will move from construction and manufacturing to industries that are creating new jobs.”

Those industries that are creating new jobs just happen to be the few that are dominated by women. I’m not sure what that will mean for the post-recession job market in such industries. Perhaps men will tire of changing catheters and being abused by other peoples’ children and go back to architecture and the like. Maybe they’ll rise up in the ranks and become hospital administrators and superintendents. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, an increased male presence will raise the perceived cultural importance of such nurturing positions, so that pay will be more commensurate with the grueling (but rewarding) work of hospice workers, paraprofessionals and the like.

So I guess that’s some silver lining for you. But let’s be real: Women shouldn’t have to sit around and wait for men to come in and demand better wages in female-dominated industries.

That’s where the Paycheck Fairness Act — which was passed in the House in January but awaits consideration of the Senate, where it can count more than a quarter of the lawmakers as sponsors — comes in. The bill aims to close loopholes that still allow wage discrimination. None of the changes are all that revolutionary; workers could no longer be punished for disclosing their pay rate, gender would be considered equal to race in cases of wage discrimination, and wage discrimination education and research would be bolstered by grant programs.

Yet the bill has languished in the Senate for some nine months now and it hasn’t yet been assigned to any committee. In the previous congressional session the bill also passed in the House, only to die in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, with which the Paycheck Fairness Act was associated in the House but not so in the Senate, one might think there is a better chance of the bill’s passage this session. But now that the public relations parade of Lilly Ledbetter — the first real piece of legislation with Obama’s signature on it — is over, does the Senate feel it’s already done enough for equal pay?

The National Organization for Women’s (NOW) call to action on this bill has a mix of veiled pessimism and overt optimism.

“The Senate was hurrying to get [the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act] to the president for signing, so they tabled their Paycheck Fairness bill (S.182) until ‘later,’” the NOW alert reads. “If we double the number of sponsors, however, Paycheck Fairness will get serious attention. And since President Obama has promised to continue making issues of pay equity a priority in his administration, he will welcome the Senate’s passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.”

I have no doubt the president would sign such a bill. And the measure has picked up seven more sponsors since the alert went out. But its main sponsor, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is busy pursuing equality for women elsewhere in the world. And judging from the utter lack of Republican co-sponsors, chances are this bill is going to somehow be unfairly construed as a partisan, and/or communist, issue. Not that that would be anything new for conservative views on equality.

Or, hey: Maybe my rose-tinted glasses are broken. God knows that glass ceiling isn’t.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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