WHERE ARE THE NEW JOBS FOR WOMEN?
December 9, 2008
Editor’s note: This opinion piece appeared Dec. 9 in The New York Times.
Barack Obama has announced a plan to stimulate the economy by creating 2.5 million jobs over the next two years. He intends to use the opportunity to make good on two campaign promises – to invest in road and bridge maintenance and school repair and to create jobs that reduce energy use and emissions that lead to global warming.
Mr. Obama compared his infrastructure plan to the Eisenhower-era construction of the Interstate System of highways. It brings back the Eisenhower era in a less appealing way as well: there are almost no women on this road to recovery.
Back before the feminist revolution brought women into the workplace in unprecedented numbers, this would have been more understandable. But today, women constitute about 46 percent of the labor force. And as the current downturn has worsened, their traditionally lower unemployment rate has actually risen just as fast as men’s. A just economic stimulus plan must include jobs in fields like social work and teaching, where large numbers of women work.
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.
It turns out that green jobs are almost entirely male as well, especially in the alternative energy area. A broad study by the United States Conference of Mayors found that half the projected new jobs in any green area are in engineering, a field that is only 12 percent female, or in the heavily male professions of law and consulting; the rest are in such traditional male areas as manufacturing, agriculture and forestry. And like companies that build roads, alternative energy firms also employ construction workers and engineers.
Fortunately, jobs for women can be created by concentrating on professions that build the most important infrastructure – human capital. In 2007, women were 83 percent of social workers, 94 percent of child care workers, 74 percent of education, training and library workers (including 98 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers and 92 percent of teachers’ assistants).
Libraries are closing or cutting back everywhere, while demand for their services, including their Internet connections, has risen. Philadelphia’s proposal last month to close 11 branches brought people into the street to protest.
Many of the jobs women do are already included in Mr. Obama’s campaign promises. Women are teachers, and the campaign promised to provide support for families with children up to the age of 5, increase Head Start financing and quadruple the money spent on Early Head Start to include a quarter-million infants and toddlers. Special education, including arts education, is heavily female as well. Mr. Obama promised to increase financing for arts education and for the National Endowment for the Arts, which supports many school programs.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama also promised that the first part of his plan to combat urban poverty would be to replicate a nonprofit organization in New York called the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities across the country. The group, which works to improve the quality of life for children and families in the Harlem neighborhood, employs several hundred people in full- and part-time jobs. By making good on this promise, Mr. Obama could create thousands of jobs for women in social work, teaching and child care.
Unlike the proposal to rebuild roads and bridges, the Harlem Children’s Zone program is urban, and thus really green. If cities become more inviting, more people will live in them – and that means they will drive less, using less fuel. The average New Yorker’s greenhouse gas footprint is only about 29 percent as large as that of the average American; the city is one of the greenest places in America.
Maybe it would be a better world if more women became engineers and construction workers, but programs encouraging women to pursue engineering have existed for decades without having much success. At the moment, teachers and child care workers still need to support themselves. Many are their families’ sole support.
A public works program can provide needed economic stimulus and revive America’s concern for public property. The current proposal is simply too narrow. Women represent almost half the work force – not exactly a marginal special interest group. By adding a program for jobs in libraries, schools and children’s programs, the new administration can create jobs for them, too.
Linda R. Hirshman is the author of “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.”