The History and Politics of “Hecovery”

Kessler harris Over at Slate, Annie Lowery writes about the economic "hecovery:" Although male jobs accounted for the majority of layoffs during the depth of the recession, men have now pulled ahead in the recovery, gaining 768,000 jobs over the past year while women workers have lost 218,000 positions. 

There's nothing new about the countercyclical nature of female employment. When the American economy lags, jobs in manufacturing and construction are the first to be cut, while the demand for service and caring-sector work continues, at least for a time, unabated–especially in the presence of government stimulus spending on education and health care. This pattern held true during the Depression; between 1930 and 1940, women's share of the labor force actually inched up slightly, from 24 to 25 percent. 

And as we saw in 2009, the Depression-era media really played up the idea that male unemployment had the potential to reforge cultural values around marriage, parenting, and gender roles. A 1933 Harper's essay was penned by a wife who admitted that her out-of-work husband now shopped, sewed, cleaned, and cooked while she worked outside the home. More socially-conservative publications, such as women's magazines, were filled with backlash-driven narratives of selfless women who, for the good of American society, turned down the opportunity to work. A typical headline read, "You May Have My Job: A Feminist Discovers her Home," from The Forum magazine in 1932.

When economic recovery kicks in, however, things often start looking less rosy for women. That was true after the Depression–when men won 20 war industry-related jobs for every 1 such job filled by a woman–and it is true today. The reason why is occupational segregation, especially among lower-skill workers. After a recession, men continue to have a stranglehold on manufacturing, construction, transportation, shipping, and other higher-paid, often-unionized, jobs.  

Meanwhile, low-skill women remain stuck in the pink collar ghetto. And a new Pew survey finds that in 2011, women are facing more competition there from men, who are increasingly willing to work in traditionally-female fields such as health-care services. This happened during the Great Depression, too, when men challenged women's dominance as teachers, secretaries, and phone operators. 

That's why recessions provide a good opportunity for policy-makers to attack the problem of gender-based occupational segregation. Two years ago, I reported in The American Prospect about ideas for how to do this: Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) wanted some stimulus spending invested in job-training programs that get women involved in non-traditional fields such as construction. The advocacy group Legal Momentum argued that all stimulus-funded construction projects should be asked to hire 10 percent female workers.

Of course, none of those ideas became reality. The result is a "hecovery."


infographic courtesy of The American Prospect

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