“Stimulating Women?”

Stimulating Women?The Root, 12 March 2009.

Obama celebrates Women’s History Month. But what about their economic futures?

womens-act-signingFlanked by a cadre of beaming, successful women, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls yesterday. But the president may have to reconcile that with the fact that the centerpiece of his administration so far—the passage of the economic stimulus package—may in fact end up hurting women economically.

Chaired by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and directed by Tina Tchen of the Office of Public Liaison, the council will be composed of the heads of every cabinet and cabinet-level agency, and will meet on a regular basis to fulfill Obama’s pledge “to ensure that each of the agencies … takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support.”

The announcement, made from the East Room of the White House, attracted important leaders from women’s advocacy groups, well-known black women like athletes Lisa Leslie and Dominique Dawes, White House policy advisers like Melody Barnes and Mona Sutphen, and military brass like Assistant VA Secretary nominee Tammy Duckworth, and Command Sergeant Major Michele Jones, the highest ranking black woman in the armed forces. Also present were Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in the women’s congressional caucus.

The announcement was intended to celebrate women’s history. But a larger question may be: What about their economic futures?

The president has been generally sympathetic to the plight of working women—the first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And at Wednesday’s event, he spoke of his wife’s struggle to balance work and family, saying, “I sign this order as a son, a grandson, a husband and a father.”

But the stimulus package, or the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, with its focus on infrastructure and construction, is heavily dependent on the revival of employment sectors that are male-dominated. The package was sold as a bouquet of “shovel-ready” projects, and while the building and manufacturing trades have been hardest hit by the recession, they are disproportionately populated with male workers. By focusing recovery efforts—and funding—on those sectors of the economy, the president may have turned a cold shoulder to those women whom he just pledged to help achieve economic equality.

Author Linda Hirschman, in a New York Times op-ed titled “Where Are the New Jobs for Women?” made this case in December regarding the draft stimulus legislation. “The current proposal is simply too narrow,” she wrote. “The bulk of the stimulus program will provide jobs for men, because building projects generate jobs in construction where women make up only 9 percent of the work force.” Women comprise 49 percent of the workforce at large. This imbalance is troubling for women whose normally lower unemployment rate has risen at the same pace as men in the last few months of the current recession.

The approved legislation did little to quiet those concerns. “In terms of the jobs that might be immediately available, we obviously don’t have as many women involved in the construction industry,” said Democratic Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on Wednesday.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis also expressed concern about “the young women coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, because they’re going to need good paying jobs, too … we have to spread it.”

When it comes to family life, the gender implications of this recovery policy are clear. Women working what author Michele Bolton calls “The Third Shift,” are increasingly responsible for supporting families, particularly true in communities of color. First Lady Michelle Obama said at a Wednesday event at the State Department honoring “women of courage” that “the difference between a struggling family and a healthy one is often the presence of a strong woman or women at the center of that family.” At the White House, Jarrett also spoke of being a single mother and “trying, as many of us do, to balance the many demands of a career, being a mom, and trying to do everything at once.” She added her hope that the White House council would help create “a broader support network for all women and girls.”

But women and black women in particular “have been carrying the burden for the last two years,” Solis told The Root. Women are more likely to be part-time workers without benefits, and black women are more likely to be the head of a household or raising children on their own.

Solis says that the women’s bureau of her department, with the help of the council, is “going to be doing everything we can to advocate that women are a big part of the Recovery Act.” She mentioned that the policies are geared not just to saving jobs but to encouraging women to take jobs in new sectors of the economy, like engineering or green building. “We’re seeing women … getting into, say, energy efficiency, learning to totally retool their skills—but it’s math and science so it’s still very important to the economy. They’re just translating that skill set, and they’re going to make three times more money than they would have if they were a schoolteacher.”

The Recovery Act also makes a big investment in health care information technology, which could help offset the focus on construction. “I think there are real opportunities for women, particularly those who want to enter the health care field,” said Wasserman-Schultz, who also cheered the infusion of education spending in the bill. “There are so many different facets to the recovery package, and I don’t think it’s too far out of balance.”

Elizabeth Bogan, a professor in the Princeton Department of Economics, also warns against putting too much stock into the argument that women won’t benefit from the stimulus: “Infrastructure, when properly done, it is extremely productive in terms of job creation,” she says. But “women ride on trains and drive cars and need the highways to be safe and all that. The concern is much more in the aggregate, in doing things that are genuinely stimulative to the economy.”

Dayo Olopade

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