Attacks on public employees, in Wisconsin and other budget-crunched states, may not sound like they’re specifically targeting female workers—but they’ll end up doing just that. Governor Scott Walker wants to strip collective bargaining from unions that disproportionately represent women—the only public employees he’s exempting are police officers, firefighters and state troopers, the majority of whom are men. In fact, jobs disproportionately held by women are those most at risk in any state considering budget cuts.
This isn't what we're used to hearing: during the “mancession,” female workers, concentrated in non-construction jobs, were less affected by the downturn than their male counterparts. But you might say we’re now entering a “hecovery.”
While construction and manufacturing were the first sectors to tank when the housing bubble burst, dragging male employment down with them, they’re now making some (albeit minimal) gains. Meanwhile, lost tax revenue and increased spending to cover unemployment benefits, coupled with a coming shut-off in federal aid, has led to state budget crises across the country. Traditionally female-heavy industries—once thought to be recession-proof—are now being hit hard by the “tough choices” made by governors facing depleted state coffers.
In other words, it’s time to start talking about the womancession.
Joanne Gallagher, a teacher in Stratford, Connecticut, has been unemployed since May. For seven years, she taught math for the shop class in a technical high school, where she received glowing reviews and was recommended for tenure. Her school had survived a round of cuts the year before; students didn’t have graphing or scrap paper, and administrators could only afford to buy forty graphing calculators per building. And then Gallagher was informed in March that the school would be reviewing and overwriting tenure recommendations; at the beginning of May she was told that her contract wouldn’t be renewed. She later found out that a single teacher has filled a job previously performed by both Gallagher and a co-teacher, while sports and art have been reduced, music cut altogether and after-school tutoring eliminated.
Joanne’s story is more and more common as the anemic economic recovery decimates state budgets. Male workers did take a huge hit when the economy first stumbled—in August 2009, the male unemployment rate stood at 11 percent while women’s was at 8.3 percent, the largest gap in the postwar era. But since late 2009, male unemployment has begun to either flatten out or make very modest gains. As of November, it was down .04 percent over the previous twelve months. Meanwhile, women’s unemployment rate is increasing—over that same period it rose .04 percent. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women lost 366,000 jobs between July 2009 and January 2011, while men gained 438,000, a difference of 804,000. These trends are set to worsen.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, forty-five states and the District of Columbia are projecting shortfalls totaling $125 billion in fiscal year 2012, and many local governments have turned to severe job cuts for public workers to fill the hole. Since August of 2008, the public sector cut 426,000 jobs, with 154,000 of those in education. Governors across the country—Republicans and Democrats alike—are threatening that there will be many more. And even though women represent just over half of the public workforce, the NWLC found that they lost the majority of the jobs—a whopping 83.8 percent—during the so-called recovery. Meanwhile, as Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the NWLC, points out, “The effects of cuts are likely to be bigger than just public employees, and the ripples mostly fall on women.” Childcare workers, social service providers, even nonprofit employees—all areas where women are concentrated—will see government subsidies dry up.
The erosion of female employment is all the more troubling because women are more economically vulnerable to begin with. They make only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men for equal work, and lower earning capacity means they’re less equipped to weather recessions. They are more than twice as likely to receive Medicaid than men and many are concentrated in jobs with low wages—1.7 million work as nursing home aides, 1.3 million as maids and housekeepers and 1.2 million as childcare workers, according to the Department of Labor. Meanwhile, 26 percent of working mothers are single parents, making their already stretched financial means go even further. This last factor also leads to a Catch- 22—finding childcare while looking for a job can be complicated, and many states will only subsidize it when women are employed.
Not to mention that most families rely on two incomes to make ends meet, so when one partner loses a job the whole family suffers—even if men regain jobs. Joanne’s husband was self-employed and they relied on her employer-sponsored health insurance until she lost her job. He has a heart condition and she has an anxiety disorder, so everything she brought in—through unemployment benefits and some money made selling crafts at fairs—went to healthcare. “It felt like we went from two incomes to one income, even though I was still bringing something to the table,” she says.
What can be done? The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 protected and even created jobs at the state and local level, but that funding is being phased out. And while state budgets were receiving some support from the federal government, it’s about to disappear. More money to help states weather this perfect storm would stem the hemorrhaging of public sector jobs, keeping women from losing even more. “Certainly it would prevent a lot of layoffs, protect a lot of services and protect a lot of jobs,” Entmacher says. But the odds of more stimulus are slim with a Republican-controlled House promising to slash government spending and the White House also looking to cut back on the deficit.
President Obama’s State of the Union outlined an ambitious investment agenda—in infrastructure. It’s unlikely that those new jobs will reach women. Only 5 percent of women work in transportation and material moving and 1 percent work in construction and maintenance. They make up about 13 percent of the construction workforce and 28 percent of the manufacturing force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, women in these sectors are still being laid off as men’s jobs come back—from November 2009 to November 2010, men gained 126,000 manufacturing jobs while women lost 18,000.
Not only are women underrepresented in building trades, but Obama also called for cost-cutting in discretionary spending, big slices of which are related to education and health. Those are the two largest areas besides spending on income support. Of the top twenty occupations for women, registered nurses are number two—2,612,000 work in this field—and elementary and middle school teachers are number three—2,343,000 teach. Just under 2 million more work as nursing and home health aides. But Obama has called for a $33 billion cut to this spending (the GOP went further, calling for $100 billion), and that’s going to take a bite out of these jobs. Obama also pledged to invest in education in the State of the Union, but it’s unclear if that money will help maintain teachers’ jobs.
Until something is done, though, Joanne will keep looking for work. She describes going to job fairs where she competes against former NASA employees. Her seven years of experience wasn’t enough for one school to grant her an interview. Most days she spends looking for jobs online, making crafts, walking her two beagles and doing housework. “I think I’d go nuts if not for two hours of dog walking in a day,” she says.