Jobs for Men but Not for Women?

Jobs for Men but Not for Women?

Though sex-based discrimination is no longer legal, it still structures American employment. Passing the Build Back Better bill could finally change that.


Is sex discrimination in employment illegal? Congress isn’t sure. It enacted a Jobs for Men bill; however, it’s still waffling on the Jobs for Women follow-up. The nation knows we need the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s improved roads, bridges, green tech, and broadband services—and (coincidentally?) the hundreds of thousands of good jobs these things require will largely go to men, in the current work scheme.

But some aren’t sure we need the kind of infrastructure support embedded (along with other programs) in the Build Back Better (BBB) Act, which both creates a million-plus well-paid care jobs (largely filled by women initially) and allows the mothers of the kids newly in care to take jobs in all fields. In a post-BBB world, those fields could include infrastructure jobs, from which women were long excluded—largely because of lack of child care, which kept mothers’ from working full-time. Likewise, if child care is well-paid, it can attract male workers. BBB will destabilize the gendered work- and wage-assignment system currently weighing us down.

The waffle on child care funding is effectively discriminatory—denying women workforce support equal to that supplied to men—and suggests an unwillingness among male legislators to give female constituents what they have long said they need and want. The issue is up for a vote now only because women have achieved a new high of 26.9 percent of congressional seats, which means their concerns are heard in a new way (even if not all 26.9 percent endorse this bill). But is that enough to pass it?

Or does too much resistance remain toward undoing the ancient system of not paying women for the essential reproductive work they do for society (which needs the smart, cooperative labor force they raise their kids to be)—a system that negatively affects all stages of their work lives, leads to lower wages and fewer promotions across their lifetimes, and denies them status and clout in all civic realms?

By monetizing this work in child care centers, the BBB will expand the work options for the 29 percent of moms of kids 18 and younger not in the labor force (NLF) in 2020 as well as the 14 percent who worked part-time, and lessen the financial pressure on the 57 percent of mothers who worked full-time, as well as on the fathers (8 percent NLF, 4 percent part-time, 88 percent full-time). Those moms who stayed home by choice still can. But those who want to work can stay in their jobs. Passing BBB will allow them to earn more while those kids are young, while avoiding the salary and status cuts faced by women who step out for care. Employers will no longer underinvest in their female employees —or at least they will be deprived of the excuse that child care responsibilities will make them unreliable workers.

Currently, women’s relative poverty at all income levels makes them vulnerable to violence and other abuse, at home and in society. And it makes their families poorer, in both money and time—forcing many parents to work multiple jobs. If moms brought in more pay, dads and kids would be better off, too. The roughly one-quarter of children being raised by a single mother will particularly benefit when released from the double burden of child care costs on single-earner households.

Though the BBB is described as “too costly” by detractors, that shortsighted view ignores the flood of new funds that this child care subsidy would unleash: those who earn more spend more, pay more in taxes, and create new markets. This bill will bring more minds and new perspectives to address our world’s many problems, yielding new solutions. And these new workers will fill the millions of current job openings, spurring growth.

To date, lack of child care has prevented half the population (51 percent) from participating equitably in the polity. Because for ages there were no women in policy-making roles, they could not create a child care infrastructure policy that would allow them to move up into policy-making roles and have their concerns heard. That vicious cycle of inequity will remain in place if BBB fails.

But if it passes, BBB’s child care and preschool supports will enormously and positively transform society and our economy. Its mechanisms are simple: expanding public education to start with preschool at 3 years old and guaranteeing that no middle- or lower-income family pays more than 7 percent of that income for child care for kids under 3. That will allow millions of women to work full-time who currently stay at home or work part-time because good child care isn’t accessible or affordable.

In this pandemic moment of enormous workforce transformation, BBB would fuel further positive change. Employers whose business models depend on low-paid workers will have to reimagine that model when workers can leave for better-paid infrastructure and child care jobs. But they’ll also have more customers. Many of the jobs that nobody wants will be mechanized, and others will be better paid. That reimagining of the dysfunctional work patterns we’ve inherited could allow all in our communities to truly thrive, for the first time.

As a result of better work and pay options, many fewer women will be pushed into prostitution or other dubious work they wouldn’t otherwise choose if it didn’t offer the best wages available to support their kids. When women aren’t relegated by care responsibilities to low-wage work, they won’t have to stay in abusive situations to give their kids a roof over their heads, and men are less likely to become abusive in the first place toward women who have the option to leave.

There are a lot of unknowns in the current environment, but in the best case the gradual trickle-up of women into policy-making roles in business and government that has slow-walked change to date will mushroom, creating the critical mass required to ensure that women’s concerns and insights will at last be listened to. A culture of investing in and valuing care will benefit everyone.

But of course, even if BBB passes in the next few weeks, many struggles remain. Recently, the proposed $3.5 trillion that would have funded this plan well has been greatly reduced to a barely adequate $1.9 trillion that only partially funds the program for seven years; after that, proponents trust that the popularity of the program will ensure its reauthorization. The funding gap would need to be covered by each state that opts into the program. Critics who first railed that BBB had too many funds attached now complain it has too few to make it attractive, especially to states with budgets built around limiting services to their citizens. But all states will need to include in their calculus an awareness that workers unhappy with their state’s choice on child care, as on other issues, can move.

Though sex-based job discrimination is no longer legal, it still structures American employment around the fiction that “it’s your family, so it’s your problem.” But as women have moved into the workplace over the past 100 years, it’s become increasingly clear that families are the nation, and their problems are the nation’s problems. Funding the infrastructure bill without its partner BBB would further distort an already inequitable playing field and leave the nation and its families in the lurch. We need women’s insights and the huge long-term economic boost that BBB will deliver.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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