Bryce Covert | The Nation

Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

Dear Hanna Rosin: I'm Doing Fine! Love, the Patriarchy

Hanna Rosin’s new neon-covered book, The End of Men, just hit bookshelves and has already led to a slew of interviews and excerpt placements. The title may sound familiar: the book grew out of her Atlantic article of the same name. That piece came out at the height of the recession, when men were suffering historic levels of unemployment. Rosin’s thesis is that the recession exaggerated a broader trend already well underway, in which American men are ceding economic dominance to women, who are better suited to a new economy that values communication, collaboration and service work. Her story’s moment may have faded: since the recession officially ended, women have gotten less than 20 percent of the jobs added to the economy, regaining just a quarter of the jobs they lost during the crisis. Men have recovered 42 percent of lost jobs.

But perhaps the biggest challenge in grappling with Rosin’s book is her tendency to use key concepts over and over without stopping to consider what they actually mean. “Matriarchy,” “success,” even “feminism” all play major roles in the End of Men, but they’re sketchily defined at best. Women have what it takes to be successful in the economy, she tells us, and calls this a matriarchy, suggesting that thousands of years of ruling patriarchy are coming to an end.

Let’s do some defining, then, starting with patriarchy. What does it mean to live in a patriarchal society? It is not just men’s ability to earn more income and control the TV remote. In Stephanie Coontz’s fantastic Sunday New York Times op-ed, she describes a

“patriarchal dividend”—a lifelong affirmative-action program for men. The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work.… At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a crime.

Patriarchy is not just a system that rewards (mostly white, straight, upper-class) men with the jobs and the money. In a highly patriarchal system, men are endowed with almost complete social control over women, not just economically but in sexual, political and reproductive realms. But, of course, having access to all the jobs—highly paid and low—and therefore all of the money is a great way to reinforce this system. Rosin acknowledges this system, saying, “For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy—enforced through the rights of the firstborn son—has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions.” Men took over “social and political institutions and [kept] women under their control,” allowing them to have “the power and resources.”

As Coontz points out, these “entitlements” for men have been losing strength for a while now, but began to erode more quickly in the past half century, as women flooded the workforce. Does this mean that we’ve ended the patriarchy? According to Rosin, the end is nigh, if not here yet.

If patriarchy is on its way out, then “matriarchy,” as Rosin puts it, is on the way in. The term figures prominently in the book, showing up on page five of Rosin’s introduction and even in one of her chapter titles—“The New American Matriarchy.”

It’s worth pausing to consider what a matriarchy would really mean. Here are some of the ways Rosin defines it:

an American matriarchy, where the younger men especially are unmoored, and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete—at least by most traditional measures of social utility. And the women are left picking up the pieces.… a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the workforce and from home, and women making all the decisions.

So a “matriarchy” means women are the Deciders. But what decisions do they get to make? This is best put by someone Rosin interviews: women “‘make every important decision’—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live.” In other words: all decisions about matters inside of the home.

The idea is not new. Fear of matriarchal rule in the home first arose with a group Rosin references: low-income black women in the 1970s and ’80s. After the release of the infamous Moynihan Report in 1965, which attributed black poverty to a “deviant” family structure with a focus on “momism,” black women as all-powerful matriarchs who demoralize the men around them became a national preoccupation. Rosin copies that language, saying black society “has turned into a virtual matriarchy.” Yet even back when this idea was sweeping the nation, these women’s supposed decision-making power within the home didn’t hold up to scrutiny—they still shared decision-making with the fathers of their children. And then as now, some have raised the question, in the words of sociologist Robert Staples: “Over whom do these women have control?” It matters where and over what women make decisions.

Domestic decision-making does not a matriarchy make. In a true matriarchy, women would sit at the head of more than a kitchen table. As Coontz mentions in her op-ed, women currently make up only 17 percent of the seats in Congress. This trend holds across all levels of governing: women are a quarter of officials and legislators at the state and local level, hold only 12 percent of governorships and are 8 percent of the country’s mayors. (And we’ve never once had a female commander-in-chief.) Few women are in charge of the decisions that affect the lives of Americans who don’t live in their own households. So to start, a matriarchy would entail not just equal political representation but political domination, putting women at the helm of nearly all policymaking.

And despite the fact that it was economic power that sparked Rosin’s original thesis, women don’t hold the decision-making roles there either. Less than 4 percent—that’s right, not even four out of 100 people—of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Women would not only be the majority of high-powered executives in a matriarchy, but they would also bring in the big bucks. Yet less than 8 percent of the top earners at these companies are women.

They also wouldn’t have to contort themselves in the extreme ways that the high-powered women Rosin interviews do. To be taken seriously, as Rosin herself reports, these women have to be “girlish enough not to trigger a backlash,” yet also “aggressive enough”; “polite, but firm”; “a self-starter and a team player.” This “tightrope specificity” and need to “play by the rules” are hardly the characteristics of a matriarch drunk on unchecked power. They are merely attempts to find a way to fit into the existing patriarchy’s guidelines.

It’s hard to claim that women have so reversed the roles that they now hold the social and economic reins in American society after looking at those numbers. But even Rosin’s narrower claim—that women are going to edge men out of the jobs and earning picture— doesn’t play out either. She suggests over and over that women have met and will continue to meet with far more success than men in our new economy. But it’s hard to say how we should define “success.”

Here are some of the trends that form the bedrock of her thesis: women made up half the workforce in 2009 (even though that percentage has again slipped), they dominate twelve of the fifteen job categories predicted to grow the most of the next decade, the average wife contributes just over 40 percent of family income and women are the majority of college students and are earning more degrees.

I’ve already looked in depth at why dominating these jobs may not be all it’s cracked up to be and why women are still not the richer sex. But do college degrees now spell economic power in the future? It’s not likely. After they move beyond high school, women make less than their male peers at every level of education. They make an average $800 a month less, but it gets worse the more education they get. In fact, women have to get a PhD to make as much as a man who has a bachelor’s. This seems a poor way to measure success—a degree that merely catches you up to the men on the educational rungs below you.

Rosin’s final confusion is about the term “feminism” and what the movement’s goals are. In a passage about a small town in Auburn, Alabama, in which women earn more than men at the median, she calls it a “feminist paradise.” It’s “a town dominated by women,” where they make up over half the workforce. And while no unemployment numbers are cited, Rosin paints a picture in which men are virtually all put out of work by the decline in manufacturing.

The purpose of feminism was never to win a battle of us versus them. Remember the slogan “A world that is good for women is good for everyone”? The point is equality—which is not the same as trying to flip the world upside down so that women rule over men.

Rosin moves fluidly between declaring this a fait acompli and a future event. She calls ours the “age of female power” and says of women that they “have…dominated the workforce.” Yet she also says “the transition to a new era is not yet complete” and that some of the trends she describes offer only “a glimpse of the…future.” It seems she believes this is “the way the world is inevitably moving,” but even she asks, “Why hasn’t it arrived yet?” It may never arrive. Women still have a huge amount of territory to gain before they can be called equal peers with men. And there’s no reason to assume or hope that they will leapfrog over men and institute another 5,000 years of rule by one gender. We’re still working on the rise of women. Let’s hope it never leads to an end of men.

For more feminist Nation coverage, check out Katrina vanden Heuvel’s latest on the GOP’s War on Women.

A Gaffe Is When a Republican Tells the Truth

This Sunday, I attended a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival in which moderator Ta-Nehisi Coates started out with a question for the panelists: Does this campaign season matter? Are we learning anything about the candidates? I was in the audience, but my response would be: Yes, it matters, and we’re learning a great deal. But it’s mostly about what the Republican Party really thinks.

While this election season may appear gaffe-tastic, the most viral moments weren’t misspoken words. Rather, they reveal what’s deep in the conservative heart—opinions that many had warned existed for a long time (and had even appeared in real-life legislation) but have now been put into stark relief for the general public. This election season has been highly instructional about deep-seated beliefs on the right.

The latest and perhaps most viral—nabbing Mother Jones, which broke the story, over 8 million visitors—was Romney’s now-infamous hidden camera 47 percent comment. Here’s what he said:

There are 47 percent of the people…. who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what... These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax…. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney has stood by his comments, with his economic adviser swearing to “triple down” on them. And in fact the ideas he expresses are nothing new to the party. Worse, given the candidness of the moment, Romney expressed what can only be characterized as unabashed disdain for half of the country. It’s not just that he’s worried, as the conservatives who cling to the 47 percent figure explain, that this constituency won’t vote for tax cuts and instead will vote for higher social safety net payouts. He dismisses them entirely because he can “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

What that sentiment leaves out, of course, is that while these Americans didn’t pay income taxes (thanks to many policies pushed into law by Republicans themselves), it doesn’t mean they don’t pay any taxes. Over 60 percent of them paid payroll taxes, which means that they also held jobs. Nearly everyone pays sales tax. Another 22 percent of this group was elderly. Add that up, and what he’s mostly talking about are the working poor and low-income older Americans. These are the people that Romney dismisses as taking no responsibility for their lives.

Far from an outlier, Romney’s statement has a long, long history. As my colleague at the Roosevelt Institute Mark Schmitt pointed out last week, this narrative around the 47 percent was hatched in the lab of the American Enterprise Institute. It’s been spouted by the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Republican VP pick Paul Ryan himself. But Romney’s remarks revealed an even more deep-seated disdain for the working poor than is normally expressed. It’s not just about taxes; it’s a belief that those at the bottom are worth less of his attention and care than the rest of the country. So much for compassionate conservatism. Romney’s remarks revealed once and for all that there is a deep disrespect for working-class and low-income people struggling to get by thriving at the heart of the Republican Party.

And it sheds light on another comment of his that blew up not so long ago: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” At the time, the quote seemed a bit out of context, because Romney continued, “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it.” Yet in his hidden-camera moment, he makes it clear just how much he despises the safety net he says should catch the poor. He scoffs at those who require assistance for healthcare, food and housing, some of the most basic provisions that this country is supposed to ensure those who are at the bottom of the income scale. Yet another moment of clarity, made even clearer by his recent comments.

We’ve seen some other very telling moments from the Republican nominee this cycle. There was “Corporations are people, my friend,” an unabashed and straightforward articulation of the conservative ethos that fueled the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Then there was the telling, fully five-second silence from Romney aides when asked whether he supports the Lilly Ledbetter Act, exposing discomfort with equal pay legislation.

But it’s not just the presidential candidate who has haphazardly revealed truths. Just last month, before we were talking about the 47 percent, we were talking about “legitimate” rape. Remember Todd Akin? Who could forget? On a random Sunday in the middle of August, Akin told a TV interviewer, “[F]rom what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Just like Romney, Akin refused to apologize for the meaning behind his words, explaining he merely meant to say “forcible rape,” not “legitimate rape.”

But this wasn’t the first time he—or the Republican Party—used the word “forcible” to categorize rapes that count and those that don’t. Akin co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act in early 2011, which would have tightened the definition of rape for abortions that are covered by the federal exception to only “forcible” ones. While some noticed this at the time, Akin’s remarks made it crystal clear to anyone half tuned in that the Republican Party thinks some rapes count and others don’t. In particular, if you weren’t roughed up when you were raped—if you were drugged, or date raped, or the victim of incest—you weren’t “really” raped.

There are other truths that surfaced about the conservative view of reproductive health. Primaries are often a process of learning, as more marginal candidates push the mainstream ones to address issues they normally wouldn’t. And right on cue, Rick Santorum made birth control, an issue many thought was settled, a debate point. Perhaps his views were made clearest by an interview with the Christian site Caffeinated Thoughts, in which he warned of “the dangers of contraception,” calling it “not okay.” 

Shortly after, Irin Carmon summed up his position thus: “Rick Santorum is coming for your birth control.” In fact, conservative opposition to not just abortion, which continues to be a polarizing topic, but birth control, which does not, has been building for quite some time. But many have been in denial—Carmon herself got a wave of pushback for the title of her piece. And yet months later, contraception was once again in the news as the Catholic bishops came out swinging against the Obama administration’s decision to mandate co-pay-free coverage of contraception as part of the ACA. And we all remember what happened next—the fight devolved into Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut for talking about (her friend’s) contraception needs. The cat is out of the bag: the GOP thinks using contraception, which virtually every woman will do in her lifetime, makes you a dirty whore and doesn’t support increased access.

These awkwardly worded statements and admissions of belief in what candidates assumed were safe spaces are hugely important. It may seem ridiculous that a hidden camera video can fuel three weeks of the news cycle. But what Romney revealed was more than an ability to keep putting his foot in his mouth. Republicans, perhaps more than ever, have exposed long-held beliefs this campaign season. They’re just finally going viral.

For more on the Republican sprint to the right, check out Ben Adler's take on crazy conservative memes. 

Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here's How It Failed.

Welfare has been on the forefront of the GOP’s brain lately, as the Romney/Ryan team has been relentlessly (and falsely) accusing President Obama of “gutting” welfare reform. So it’s unsurprising that it might came up in President Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC last night. After all, Clinton was the one to sign the 1996 welfare reform bill, transforming the program into what it is today. It made sense for him to defend President Obama from the Republican attacks saying he was undoing his own legislation.

In the midst of his defense of Obama, not one to miss a chance to give himself a little back-pat, Clinton said of the ’90s reforms: “This is personal to me. We moved millions of people off welfare. It was one of the reasons that in the eight years I was president, we had a hundred times as many people move out of poverty into the middle class than happened under the previous twelve years, a hundred times as many. It’s a big deal.”

But while welfare reform may have initially reduced poverty, it left those still living at that income level worse off than they were before, reaching fewer of them and giving those it did reach less. And our poverty rates didn’t stay low. When they began to rise again, the program couldn’t offer them the support it used to. The recession has been a crystal clear, and incredibly painful, demonstration of this fact.

Dylan Matthews has already taken a look at the claim that millions moved off of welfare’s rolls and poverty was reduced. As he writes, the program’s numbers have steadily fallen since 1996: “Since reform, the rolls have shrunk from 12.6 million to 4.6 million.” The number of people in poverty “fell by 6.4 million people under Clinton, whereas the number of people in poverty increased by 7.4 million between 1981 and 1993 (and the rate went from 14 percent to 15.1 percent).” There is a catch, though. “But it’s worth noting that welfare reform led to a huge spike in extreme poverty, as defined as the number of households making under $2 a day,” Matthews adds.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has done excellent work to track TANF’s failures. “While the official poverty rate among families declined in the early years of welfare reform, when the economy was booming and unemployment was extremely low, it started increasing in 2000 and now exceeds its 1996 level,” it reports. “Over the last 16 years, the national TANF caseload has declined by 60 percent, even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened.” In fact, nearly 70 percent of poor families with children received cash assistance in 1996; in 2009, less than 30 percent did. And the families who are able to access benefits aren’t getting much. Their purchasing power is below 1996 levels, adjusting for inflation, in every state but two. They fall below 50 percent of the poverty line in every state.

The rolls may be going down, but the need is not. The early employment gains among welfare recipients were tied to the strong economy. As the CBPP puts it, “The data suggest that a strong labor market is central to the success of a work-based assistance system.” When the labor market went into free fall, those gains were lost. But rather than low-income individuals finding themselves cushioned by TANF’s safety net, there was nothing to stop the fall.

As the recession hit, jobs evaporated and the unemployed needed support. TANF’s caseload should have shot up, offering assistance to those living in poverty who were no longer working. But the opposite happened. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of unemployed people doubled, yet TANF’s rolls increased by only 13 percent nationwide—in some states, the numbers actually fell. Contrast that with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which was able to grow by 45 percent to meet increased need.

To figure out why the program is no longer elastic enough to grow and shrink with demand, take a look at what happened when Clinton signed that bill. Those reforms changed the program from a cost-sharing model to a block grant, in which the federal government gives states a fixed amount of money and requires them to maintain a certain level of their own spending (“maintenance of effort,” or MOE). That federal number stays the same no matter what happens to the economy, unlike the pre-reform program, under which the federal government automatically shared the cost if caseloads shot up. Not to mention that the amount given out in the block grant has been frozen since it was created fifteen years ago, losing nearly 30 percent of its value to inflation.

Meanwhile, the MOE requirements have also fallen in value by the same amount. And as soon as states got the block grants, they started moving the money around. As the CBPP reports, “Over time, states redirected a substantial portion of their TANF and MOE funds to other purposes,” such as using the money to plug holes in their budgets or free up money for other projects. But when the recession hit and they needed to put those funds back toward helping low-income people, “many states were unable—for fiscal or political reasons—to reclaim those dollars.” That’s why they weren’t able to expand the rolls to accommodate such a high need for financial assistance. SNAP, the food stamp program, on the other hand, has funding that rises automatically to deal with increased demand.

Those who opposed welfare reform in the first place saw a lot of this coming. And funnily enough, one of the bill’s critics will be stepping onto the very same stage tonight that Clinton spoke from yesterday. As Ryan Lizza reports this week in his profile of the relationship between Clinton and President Obama, “Obama came to share an ambivalence toward Clinton’s policies that was common on the left” in his early career. Obama called Clinton’s signing of the final bill “disturbing” and later said he wouldn’t have supported it. He even worked to pass a state law while serving as an Illinois state senator that restored benefits to legal immigrants.

This makes for some strange bedfellows. But it’s clear that Obama’s grant of the request for work requirement waivers from a handful of governors is merely allowing them a bit more wiggle room in meeting the law’s requirements. The real tragedy is not Obama’s waivers. It’s welfare’s failure to give some of the most vulnerable among us the support they so desperately need in this economy.

A Middle-Class or Minimum-Wage Matriarchy?

While watching Elizabeth Warren address the DNC last night, I was struck by a small piece of her personal story that I’ve heard her tell many times: “Like a lot of you, I grew up in a family on the ragged edge of the middle class,” she said. “My daddy sold carpeting and ended up as a maintenance man. After he had a heart attack, my mom worked the phones at Sears so we could hang on to our house.” Warren would go on to write The Two-Income Trap with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, in which she described how this model, of stay-at-home wife as economic safety net, has since evaporated. But when she was growing up, one paycheck was enough to support a family. And that meant that middle-class women, who in the 1950s and ’60s were expected to stay out of the labor force and tend to the home, could jump into the workforce if something happened to the husband breadwinner and still support their families until he was back on his feet.

This stood out to me because I just read Hanna Rosin’s excerpt of her new book in the New York Times Magazine. Rosin presages the rise of “a nascent middle-class matriarchy” in which men’s traditional middle-class jobs dry up and women become the breadwinners. While American manufacturing has been on a steady decline for a while, Rosin picked up on an intensified trend during the recession: men were facing historic unemployment levels, while “women’s work” remained steady. Leaving aside for a moment the reversal of those trends in the recovery—which I will pick up more thoroughly when I review her full book—what if that’s our economy’s long-term trajectory? What will it mean if women take the place as head of household? Unlike Warren’s childhood experience, today’s families will have a hard time hanging on to the middle class.

Rosin, at least in this excerpt, focuses mostly on what it means for family structures and the awkward relationship between husbands and wives living in the “traditional values” swaths of America when roles reverse. But perhaps even more troubling are the effects on families that used to represent our middle class.

Rosin admits that while traditionally female sectors jobs like nursing, home healthcare and child care are among the few projected to grow over the next ten years, “These are not necessarily the most desirable or highest-paying jobs.” She even makes clear with her anecdotes that the women of her story who jump into the workplace when their husbands are laid off take far lower paychecks. When the plant that employed the town’s men began laying them all off, Rosin writes, “Many [of the wives] were willing to take low-paying jobs because they hadn’t spent their lives expecting to be the primary breadwinner.”

This is particularly true of any women who had previously adhered to the traditional family model, staying home and caring for their children. “Patsy had little experience in the work force and did not think of herself as a professional or a manager,” Rosin says of one woman she interviews, “but [her] friend told her she could possibly make as much as $20 an hour, which sounded better than the $5.50 she made at day care. It might not have been enough for [her husband] Reuben, but to Patsy, who never had a steady paycheck, it sounded incredible.”

It’s clear that occupational segregation is alive and well in these families’ lives. And that means the women will bring in smaller paychecks than their husbands once did when they head into the workforce. “Women’s work” just doesn’t pay as well as men’s. At the low end of the skill level, male-dominated fields pay nearly $150 more a week than female-dominated ones. At the high end of the skill level, that number balloons to $471 less a week. Those are devastating numbers for any family relying on a mother’s paycheck.

But even more troubling may be that while men’s middle-class jobs have been eroded by the recession, the same has held true for women’s work. As I wrote earlier this week, a new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that mid-wage jobs have been decimated by the economic downturn, only to be replaced by low-wage ones. This phenomenon is happening to both genders. For women, it manifests most pointedly in the hemorrhaging of secretary and administrative assistant jobs as employees are asked to take on more duties at work. When they lose these solidly middle-class jobs, they tend to take work as home health aides, cashiers and waitresses. So if women are now becoming the breadwinners, as Rosin claims, they’re far more likely to enter minimum-wage jobs.

As Warren said in her speech last night, “I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class… But for many years now, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered.” Women may take over the breadwinning. But if they do so in minimum-wage jobs, it will be one more nail in the coffin of the American middle class. The role reversal, if it really is happening (and I have my own doubts, to be explored in the aforementioned review), is unlikely to bring about Rosin’s middle-class matriarchy. It is far more likely to be a minimum-wage one, which will mean that even more families will slip from the ranks of the middle class we so pride ourselves on.

Middle-Class Secretaries Are Being Pushed Into Minimum Wage Work

The recession seemed to mark the dying gasp of blue-collar jobs: as construction and manufacturing tanked, it sped along the decline of solid factory work for middle-class American men. That intensification of a long-term trend inspired such hard hand-wringing that there was a crisis of raw knuckles. Less noticed, however, has been a similar hollowing out in the middle for pink-collar work. Beyond the decent-paying public sector jobs that women have been kicked out of thanks to budget cuts in the recovery period, there’s another reason women are losing middle-class jobs and taking new ones as clerks and waitresses: job losses among secretaries and administrative assistants.

Back in 2011, a question perplexed many, even the likes of the Pew Research Center: why were women losing jobs in the private sector? Teachers were being fired because state budgets were so crunched, but that couldn’t explain why private sector women were falling behind men. My Roosevelt Institute colleague Mike Konczal and I took a look at the job losses by occupation and found a stunning trend: women had lost a total of 925,000 jobs in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s “office and administrative support occupations” category.

Checking in a year later, a new report from the National Employment Law Project shows this trend is continuing. It finds that mid-wage jobs—those making $13.84 an hour to $21.13 an hour—have been decimated during the recovery, while job gains have happened mostly in low-wage jobs that make between $7.69 and $13.83 an hour. When the report stacks up the mid-wage jobs with the weakest recovery growth, secretaries and administrative assistants clock in at number two, having lost 345,101 jobs. Third are first-line supervisors and managers of office and administrative workers—those just above the secretaries but in similar roles—who have lost 327,559 jobs. That’s a grand total of 672,660 administrative jobs lost since 2009.

This spells bad news for female workers, who hold three-quarters of these jobs. And the driving force behind the losses is just as troubling. Given that the ability to find a new job is almost nil in the miserable job market, workers are feeling trapped. (For example, the quit rate has hovered at a very low rate since the recovery began.) That gives employers huge leverage in pushing their employees to take on heavier loads without higher pay. This is what Mother Jones calls “the great speed-up”: all work and no pay makes American workers stressed out. In a Spherion Staffing survey, over half of workers had taken on new roles, but just 7 percent had gotten more money for doing so. This trend means that secretaries and administrative assistants are getting the ax, while their workloads get pushed to their remaining coworkers.

This is all, of course, on top of massive public-sector job losses for women, often stemming from widespread teacher layoffs, which also eat away at mid-wage work. And when these unemployed teachers and secretaries find work again, the NELP report shows that the greatest job gains have come in low-wage service jobs like waitresses, retail store clerks and personal and home care aides. Those occupations have added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years—accounting for nearly half of all employment growth.

This trend is happening alongside the loss of blue-collar work: truck drivers are the number-one mid-wage job-losers, and carpenters are number four. Those laid off men may be even more likely to take some of the low-wage jobs, given that they’re making gains in retail, but women are losing jobs there. And women should be concerned that not only are men entering traditionally female sectors during the recovery but when they do they are paid more and meet with better benefits and promotions.

But this isn’t a timed trial in the Oppression Olympics. It’s clear that the chasm in the middle of the job market is hurting women and men alike. While record unemployment levels can’t be explained away by structural issues—if businesses saw more demand, they’d hire more and a flood of relieved unemployed people would be quick to sign up for jobs—the recession and recovery have sped up some ongoing trends. The basis of our economy is quickly shifting from durable, middle-class careers to temporary service-sector work. And the notion that women can take advantage of men’s loss seems troubled at best. The hollowing out of the middle of our labor force means that men and women alike who used to be able to count on good work in the office or the factory are now seeking employment in Walmart and Applebee’s. Grab some moisturizer, because we should all be wringing our hands.

Women Backslide in Retail Jobs, Losing Yet Another Foothold in the New Economy

Women are on the verge of ruling the new economy, right? They’re getting more college degrees, dominating middle management and grabbing up jobs in industries that are set to see explosive growth. Except that last part is starting to reverse course.

Among the reasons Hannah Rosin highlighted in support of her thesis that the “End of Men” is nigh was, “Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women.” But women have lately been backsliding in important categories. Some new data make the picture look even bleaker.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced in February that 25 percent of all new jobs over the next decade will be in three industries: construction, retail trade and the offices of health practitioners. When it comes to occupations, i.e., actual job titles, the four expected to add the most jobs are registered nurses, retail salespersons, home health aides and personal care aides. 

Notice that retail—think salespeople working in a store—has the promise of growth in both industry and occupation. Women have typically held their own in this area: employment’s usually split about 50-50 between men and women. But not so during the recovery.

According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, men have grabbed a ton of jobs in retail while women have lost them. Take a look at this chart to see it in stark detail:

The NWLC’s report spells it out: “since the recovery began in June 2009, men have gained 395,600 jobs in retail—almost 2.5 times the number of jobs that women have lost (163,400) in the same period.” And this isn’t because men are climbing out of a huge hole in employment from the recession. The job losses there were split about as evenly as prior employment. Men accounted for 55 percent of the jobs lost between December 2007 and June 2009. Yet their job gains have been far more than proportional. As NWLC puts it, “Men have now gained back about 70 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession in retail—but women’s losses have grown by more than one-third since the end of the recovery.”

Perhaps this is unique to retail sales. Maybe stores want some hunky dudes to draw in female shoppers (after all, they make up as much as 80 percent of American consumer spending). Unfortunately this trend isn’t unique to the sector. Remember when manufacturing was seeing a rebound earlier this year? That was entirely male. Men gained 230,000 jobs in the sector between 2010 and 2011, but women lost 25,000. And while you might again wonder if this is due to men experiencing so many job losses during the initial recession, that again proves to be false. The job losses there were massive for men, but mostly because they had so many of the jobs to begin with—it was actually proportional according to gender. 

In fact, while public sector job losses get us a long way toward explaining why women have fallen so far behind men during the recovery, the private sector has been no ray of sunshine. Women have picked up just over a quarter of the jobs added there during the recovery. Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported, men have found a third of their job gains in occupations that are traditionally over 70 percent female.

What’s going on here? It’s hard not to see telltale signs of discrimination. As I wrote last week, given that women typically hold the majority of public sector jobs, you might expect that they would also feel the most pain when budget cutting hits. But in that same piece I noted a new study showing that married women with children spent longer looking for a new job after being laid off than similar men and also saw their earnings decline more. Why pick a married man over a married woman for an open position? Perhaps the man-as-breadwinner ideal is just that strong: we still unconsciously assume a man is supporting a family with his job, even if the majority of women are also bringing home their share of the bacon.

For now, women are still set to make up the majority of home health and personal aides, benefitting from another deep stereotype—that care work is “women’s work.” But women will have a hard time winning the future if discrimination is still so rampant throughout our economy, even if it’s subtle. It’s said that times of crisis can bring out the best in a people, whether it be a natural or economic disaster. But they can also expose the fault lines that were buried beneath the surface all along. If the recovery period is any indication of how society thinks about women workers, they’ll continue to face an uphill battle in the workforce, even with other forces pushing them along.

Can We All Just Get Along and Solve the Gender Wage Gap?

After having an Internet-based back and forth on the causes (and therefore potential solutions) of the gender wage gap, Ramesh Ponnuru and I took our discussion to Bloggingheads to hash it out in real time. I want to echo his sentiment at the end: I’m really grateful not only that he agreed to do this with me but that we could have a fact-based, bipartisan, civil conversation that both highlighted some common ground—we need to give parents more childcare support, women’s choices may be constrained by society’s expectations, the GAO should do another study on the gap—and some of our differences. And as I said to him during the video, it’s refreshing to have a discussion with a conservative that doesn’t fight over the existence of the gender wage gap itself but can instead move to a conversation about how we might best address it.

For Some Women, Discrimination Prevents Return to Work

Women have yet to recover in the recovery. While men suffered bloated unemployment levels during the “mancession,” the trends have since reversed. Since the beginning of the recovery (June 2009), men experienced more than quadruple the job gains made by women. This can at least be partially explained by the fact that men were climbing back from low employment levels, plus massive layoffs in some areas, such as education, where women hold the majority of jobs. But can it all be explained that way? A new study helps fill in the picture with what else might be at work: good old-fashioned discrimination.

There are some logical, if preventable, reasons for women’s employment struggles: first and foremost is the fact that austerity and budget cutting has lead to a historic loss of public sector jobs, and women, who are the majority of government workers, have born the brunt of those layoffs. We’ve lost about 600,000 public sector jobs since the recession ended, making for the smallest government workforce relative to our population since 1968. Much of those were public school teachers. For every ten jobs women gained in the private sector during the recovery, they’ve lost more than four public sector jobs. And yes, we might expect men to make faster job gains after experiencing such low levels of employment during the height of the crisis.

But can these trends explain all of it? This year, women have been making some gains in the private sector, but last year they were also losing those jobs as men gained them back. Meanwhile, men have been making inroads into traditionally female sectors during the recovery. Men have found a third of their jobs in occupations that are (or, at least, were) more than 70 percent female.

While public sector job losses are painful, in theory it makes sense that women would be the hardest hit, since those workers are disproportionately female. But there’s new evidence that discrimination plays a role in some women’s struggles to return to the labor force. Authors Michelle Maroto, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, and Brian Serafini, graduate student at the University of Washington, looked at a national sample of displaced workers from the Census Bureau who were laid off for various economic—not performance-related—reasons. They found that in 2010 married mothers who had lost their jobs spent longer than married fathers looking for work. Once they did find a job, their earnings decreased more than men’s—by $175 a week, or $9,100 a year.

And we can’t just write this off as a result of the “mommy track” at work. As Serafini put it, “These findings hold true across different backgrounds, such as occupation, earnings and work history. This implies that laid-off moms aren’t just taking part-time jobs or seeing being laid off as a way to opt out of the workforce and embrace motherhood instead.” What it does expose is discrimination against mothers in the workforce. Meanwhile, fathers might actually get a boost. Married men fared even better than unmarried men in finding a new job.

There is one glimmer of hope for women in the new study: single, childless women seemed to get back to work faster than similar men. But they both fared the same when it came to the drop in earnings between the old job to the new one. 

This study may also shed light on those who have dropped out of the labor force altogether, having lost their job but also given up on looking for a new one. The number of people in that group, both men and women, has been at record levels this year, but while men have dropped out at a higher rate, it’s almost all due to the continuation of a decades-long trend. Women, on the other hand, got an abrupt shove out of the workforce when the recession hit.

Why would women drop out? Once reason, as proposed by the authors of a paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, is because “nonmarket” work becomes more productive for women when the job market is in a nosedive—they can feel it’s just as valuable to watch the children and clean the home than to try and find a job. They could also be pursuing other options, like getting a higher degree or going into early retirement.

But what if women are running into a wall of discrimination when job hunting, as this new study suggests? If you end up looking for work for a protracted period of time, it’s not hard to see why you might end up throwing in the towel and finding something better to do with your time—particularly if the jobs you do find pay you so much less than you deserve. History shows that the pay gap itself can lead women to drop out. Those who make less than their similarly educated husbands have been sliding out of the workforce since the nineties, so if they’re being offered even less pay than they used to make, it could be that much more incentive to stay home.

Discrimination can be hard to prove, particularly if it’s subtle and unconscious. But study after study after study has shown that women face bias in the workforce. It looks like the recession has been no exception. Even as the majority of women bring home the bacon, the myth of the man as breadwinner is so pervasive that it seems to have impacted whether women can get back to work after the worst recession since the 1930s.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Gender Wage Gap

I would love to agree with Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest Bloomberg column, in which he argues that the gender wage gap—in which women on average still make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes—is not caused by discrimination. Ponnuru argues that, rather, it’s caused by different choices women make in their career paths and family formations. Wouldn’t it be great if the gap didn’t exist because women are held back and given less, but because they simply want different things? And it’s certainly true that the fact that women are congregated in a different set of jobs and often have to leave the workforce when they have children plays a role. But even this can’t explain away the gap.

Ponnuru cites research by conservative economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth and a consulting company showing that the gap all but disappears when factors such as women’s working fewer hours, going part-time or taking breaks from their careers are taken into account. But the Government Accountability Office has already examined this question. The GAO tried to figure out just how much of the gap could be explained by these sorts of factors. To do so, it first performed a quantitative analysis using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a nationally representative longitudinal data set. It also supplemented that work by interviewing experts, reviewing the literature and contacting employers.

What did the study find? It’s true that a variety of factors come into play—among them work patterns, job tenure, industry, occupation, race and marital status. But when it stripped all of these out, it still found that women earned about 80 percent of what men did. “Even after accounting for key factors that affect earnings,” the authors report, “our model could not explain all of the difference in earnings between men and women.” While it couldn’t definitively say what caused that 20 percent gap, plain old discrimination was one of the few possibilities it highlighted.

The idea that women are paid less because they choose certain industries or occupations also doesn’t get us very far. Among the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s list of nearly 600 occupations, women make less than men in all but seven of them. And even in those where women make more, the difference is often as slight as a couple of dollars a week. They even make less in each industry: among the BLS’s thirteen industry categories, women make less than men in every single one. What this means is that even in “women’s fields,” men are going to rake in more. In fact, men have been entering traditionally female-dominated sectors during the recovery period, and as the New York Times noted, they’re meeting with great success—“men earn more than women even in female-dominated jobs.” Women can enter engineering all they want, but their pay still won’t catch up to men’s.

What of the idea that women are paid less because they don’t ask for more money? Ponnuru argues that “women are less likely than men to drive hard bargains in salary negotiations,” which might explain some of the gap. But that idea is based more on stereotypes of women shying away from ambition than reality. Research firm Catalyst found that women do in fact ask for more money—they just aren’t rewarded for it. It looked at the career paths of thousands of MBA graduates, men and women, who were similarly ambitious about their career paths. It found that among those who moved on from their first job, “there was no significant difference in the proportion of women and men who asked for increased compensation or a higher position.” But there was a big difference in how much they ended up making—the women had slower compensation growth, and the gap got wider and wider as their careers progressed.

Another recent study focused on the manager side of the equation: are they rewarding men and women who seek raises equally? Turns out the answer is no. When managers were told they had a limited pot of money to give out in raises to employees with the same skill and experience levels, managers gave men raises that were two and a half times larger than women’s when they knew they’d have to negotiate. In short: women ask, but they don’t receive.

Ponnuru does acknowledge that women’s personal choices may be constrained by social expectations and structures. Indeed, when talking about the fact that many women drop out of the workforce to care for children or end up cutting back their hours, we’re not just talking about fully equal options. Many women don’t have a lot of other financial options—single mothers whose childcare costs outpace their wages, parents who can’t afford the incredible cost of childcare, the fact that we are one of the three nations of 178 that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave (not to mention paternity leave). That’s why his claim that “there’s no reason to think that women will ever, on average, have the same preferences as men about combining employment and parenthood” is doubtful. We haven’t given them the chance.

So does this mean, as he tries to claim, that we can’t look to employers to fix the gender wage gap? Should we throw up our hands? It’s true that this is a complex issue that can’t be solved with one silver bullet. But there are things that need to change in the workplace. Salary secrecy is a big one. How are women going to fight discrimination if they’re barred, as about half of all workers are, from talking with their coworkers about pay? Employers also have to fix a broken career pipeline that keeps equally ambitious women in lower pay jobs and prevents them from reaching the top ranks. Other solutions have to come from the government, such as guaranteeing paid family leave, increasing childcare support so parents can afford quality choices and raising the minimum wage, since the vast majority of those workers are women.

Surely the gender wage gap is a complicated issue. But dismissing it as a figment of feminists’ imagination, which seems to be a new conservative meme, is disingenuous. We can disagree on the solutions, but we shouldn’t be fighting over the basic premise.

Update: Ramesh Ponnuru (very quickly!) responded to this piece, and I appreciate his civility. He doesn’t dispute the findings of the GAO study I cite, but isn’t convinced that the remaining 20 percent pay gap is due to discrimination. In some ways that’s fair—the GAO is careful to say that it can’t definitively pinpoint what’s causing that remaining gap. It’s incredibly hard to prove that it is in fact widespread discrimination. But I think some of the other points I made make a pretty good case that discrimination is going on. Take the study of managers: it was clear that they were biased against women, giving men raises that were more than double what they gave women. There have been other studies along these lines, like one that showed people identical résumés but with some mentioning that the applicant was a mother and others mentioning the applicant was a father. Fathers were offered $6,000 more than non-fathers in compensation; mothers were offered $11,000 less than non-mothers. Studies like these expose our deep-seated ideas about women in the workplace, held by men and women alike, that impact hiring and salary decisions.

He also points out that I didn’t respond to the one piece of legislation he condemns in particular, which he calls the “comparable-worth bill called for by NOW.” I’m not sure what bill he’s referring to—in the press release he cites, NOW mentions both the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1519/S. 797) and the Fair Pay Act (H.R. 1493). The Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to end pay secrecy—allowing employees to talk to one another about their compensation so that women can be made aware of any potential discrimination—and clarifies and strengthens the definition of what counts as a justification for pay disparities while beefing up the penalties for businesses that fail to provide equal compensation to proactively deter it.

Given Ponnuru’s description, however, he likely means the Fair Pay Act. He claims that the bill would “force employers to change the pay scales for different jobs” and that “the government would be invited to decide appropriate pay levels, one lawsuit at a time.” That’s not quite what it does. It amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit discrimination in compensation on the basis of sex, race or national origin, while allowing exemptions for “seniority systems, merit systems, systems that measure earnings by quantity or quality of production, or differentials based on bona fide factors that the employer demonstrates are job-related or further legitimate business interests.” It also prohibits firing or discriminating against employees for opposing anything the Act makes illegal or assisting in an investigation, and it calls for the EEOC to study and report its effects. That doesn’t sound like the government dictating wage scales—particularly given all of the exemptions for actual performance. If a company is paying a woman less than a man for any reason other than quality or quantity of work, seniority, merit or other defensible factors, what could possibly be the justification? 

I’ll reiterate that I don’t think it will take one thing to close the wage gap—although, contra Ponnuru’s statement, I do disagree with his assertion that “there’s no reason to expect or want the gap ever to close completely.” We can close the gap, but we have to address the many structural factors that go into it. These bills would take solid steps toward that goal, but they won’t do it by themselves.

Paul Ryan's Budget Deals a Body Blow to Women's Bottom Line

You’d have to be living under a rock to miss the news on Saturday morning that Mitt Romney has picked Congressman Paul Ryan to be his running mate. The announcement immediately kicked up a flurry of speculation: what does Ryan bring to the ticket that Romney wants? One thing he does not bring: women’s votes. Mitt Romney has been dogged by a problem with female voters, lagging in their support far behind President Obama, particularly among single women. But where Romney has been vague and flip-floppish on many issues, Ryan has long been very clear about his staunch support for policies that will hurt women economically.

Most people know Paul Ryan for his budget plans. There’s plenty of pain to be found in his budget for the lower and middle class, but women in particular make out poorly (literally) if his budget gets a presidential signature. Add in other policies he’s proposed or supported, and the picture becomes even bleaker. Here’s why:

1. Medicaid is crucial to women’s health. It provides coverage to nearly 19 million low-income women, meaning that they make up 70 percent of the program’s beneficiaries. Any slashing of Medicaid’s rolls will therefore fall heavily on their shoulders.

And Paul Ryan’s policies would do just that. Ryan’s budget slashes Medicaid by more than 20 percent over the next ten years and turns it into a block grant to states, letting them spend the money as they wish—as opposed to the current form, in which states have to follow certain rules in how the money is spent. The Urban Institute estimated that the block grant plan alone would lead states to drop 14–27 million people from Medicaid by 2021.

On top of that, Ryan’s budget repeals the Affordable Care Act, and with it the Medicaid expansion that some states are already threatening to refuse. Without that expansion, 17 million people will be left without Medicaid coverage. Women will again be hurt by this outcome: 13.5 million were expected to get health insurance coverage under the expansion by 2016. A Ryan budget would ensure they stay unprotected. 

2. Social Security is another crucial safety net program that women disproportionately rely on. It is virtually the only source of income for about a third of female beneficiaries over 65. (Compare that to less than a quarter of men.) Without it, half of those women would live in poverty. 

Ryan’s budgets haven’t called for specific cuts to the program, although his first version favorably cited the cuts proposed by the Simpson-Bowles report. But before he was known for chart-filled budgets, he put his name to a plan to partially privatize Social Security by having workers divert about half of their Social Security payroll-tax contribution to a private retirement account. Remember how well 401(k)s fared during the recent financial crisis when stocks took a nosedive? That could happen again—and the women who rely on Social Security benefits could be left without anything to fall back on.

3. One more big social safety net program that women rely on: Medicare. The majority of Medicare beneficiaries are women, and twice as many women over age 65 live in poverty as compared to men.

Ryan’s budget plan would raise the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 while repealing the ACA, leaving those between ages 65 and 67 with neither Medicare nor access to health insurance exchanges or subsidies to help them buy coverage. That will leave low-income people with nowhere to turn except the pricey private insurance market at an age when healthcare is crucially important. Come 2023 his plan would also replace Medicare’s guarantee of health coverage with payments to the elderly to buy coverage from private companies or traditional Medicare. The problem is that the payments would increase so slowly that spending on the average 67-year-old by 2050 could be reduced by as much as 40 percent as compared to now. That’s not going to go very far toward getting the elderly health coverage.

4. There are other huge pieces of the social safety net that women rely on that Ryan would unravel if given the chance. Beyond all the above cuts, his budget plan would spend about 16 percent less than President Obama’s budget on programs for the poor. This includes slashing SNAP, or food stamps, by $133.5 billion, more than 17 percent all told, over the next decade. 

According to the National Women’s Law Center, women were over 60 percent of adult SNAP recipients and over 65 percent of elderly recipients in 2010. Plus over half of all households that rely on SNAP benefits were headed by a single adult—and over 90 percent of them were women.

5. His budget would also cut TANF, the program that replaced welfare, and Supplemental Security Income by $463 billion. Nearly nine in ten adult beneficiaries of TANF were women in 2009—over 85 percent.

6. Given that his budget plan gets over 60 percent of the $5.3 trillion in nondefense budget cuts from support for low-income Americans, there are a host of other programs women rely on that would see huge cuts. Childcare assistance, Head Start, job training and housing and energy assistance would likely see a $291 billion cut. Cuts to childcare and Head Start will disproportionately impact working mothers. But other programs also greatly benefit women. Take housing support. The Housing Choice Voucher program provides families with rental assistance, and over 80 percent of households receiving that support are headed by women.

7. There are plenty of other ways that Ryan’s ultraconservative views could impact women financially beyond his severe budget and policy proposals. His views on contraception are from another century. He’s against the ACA’s mandate that religious employers provide insurance coverage for birth control. He’s also opposed to federally funded family planning services. He voted to deny birth control coverage to federal employees in 1999 and has voted at least four times to defund Planned Parenthood, a key provider of contraceptives, particularly for low-income women. He also supports the “personhood” movement, which writes bills defining conception as the beginning of life that would likely outlaw some forms of birth control.

This is not just a social issue. This is an economic issue for millions of women. Research has shown a clear link between women’s ability to control their fertility thanks to contraception and increased female employment. In 1950, 18 million women were in the workforce. Since then, the pill has become widely available and widely used, and that number has tripled to 66 million. Ryan threatens to set us back by at least half a century and make it that much harder for women to get into the workforce.

8. On top of this, he’s no supporter of equal pay for equal work, voting against the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which gives women more time to file lawsuits when they believe they’ve been discriminated against by an employer. The gender wage gap means that the typical woman loses $431,000 over a forty-year career as compared to her male peers.

On Feministing, Vanessa Valenti points out that there are plenty of other ways that Paul Ryan's policies are a nightmare for the country’s women—from opposing Roe v. Wade to voting against marriage equality to being terrible on immigration issues. One thing is for sure: if Romney’s new running mate is voted in as second in command and his ideas guide the next administration, women can expect a lot of economic pain.

Read more Nation coverage of Paul Ryan:
Ari Berman, “Romney-Ryan Economic Plans Would Deepen Recession
And remember when Paul Ryan gave the Republican response to the State of the Union? Katrina vanden Heuvel took apart his budget back then, in “Paul Ryan, the Republicans' 'Thinker.' “

Syndicate content