The LA Times is calling it the "he-cession." The stark facts show that the economic crisis is hitting men particularly hard: The official male unemployment rate just spiked to 8.8 percent, while the figure for women is on a slower rise, now at 7 percent. So we can add to the old-fashioned gender gap in wages (favoring men, who make one dollar to a woman’s 80 cents for the same job), a new gender gap in unemployment, favoring women.
With women working more, there has been a role reversal of sorts, but it’s hardly the kind feminists envisioned. As men lose their jobs, households are depending increasingly on the relatively meager wages of women to stay afloat. And the newly unemployed men aren’t spending their freed-up time packing lunches and schlepping the kids to soccer games. According to an analysis of time use data by economists Alan B. Krueger and Andreas Mueller, they’re more likely to devote those hours to looking for new jobs–and sleeping more, and watching more TV.
The picture of domestic life that emerges is not the gendered suburban dystopia of Revolutionary Road. But vestiges of that old order persist, mixing in new and potentially combustible ways with the legacy of feminism (the increased participation of women in the labor force), its unfinished business (their lower wages, and the lack of social supports for working motherhood), and the vagaries of this particular downturn, which has been especially merciless in male-dominated sectors like construction and manufacturing.
To put it another way, the "second shift" that sociologist Arlie Hochschild described in her classic book of that name is alive and well–even as it’s increasingly women alone who are working the first shift.
These complex dynamics were the subject of lively discussion at the symposium "Achieving Equity for Women" last week in Washington, organized by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. A few months ago, feminists were writing skeptical op-eds about President Obama’s "macho stimulus package," which emphasized "shovel-ready" projects that would boost employment in traditionally male occupations over investment in childcare, education and health, where women are more likely to be employed.
Now that we know men have lost four out of every five jobs in this recession, the conversation among feminists is focusing on how the jobs women have hung onto weren’t so great in the first place. For example, while childcare workers in many states make just minimum wage ($7.21 in Florida), construction workers, when they can get work, routinely earn upwards of $30 an hour. And childcare, meanwhile, continues to be woefully underfunded, with the stimulus package alotting just $2 billion to support care for low-income kids. To build a truly decent universal system–making life sane for all working parents–the price tag would be more like $100-$200 billion.
With women poised to eclipse men the labor force–they’re at 49.1 percent and counting–it’s nice to have proof that the much-celebrated "Opt-Out Revolution" was the smoke and mirrors working mothers always knew it was. But there’s no reason to cheer this milestone if it mainly reflects the obliteration of jobs for men. Likewise, the narrowing of the gender gap in wages (which has been cut in half in the past 25 years) has been in part an illusory victory, since it has reflected not just the advancement of upper-income women, but the fact that the real wages of low-skilled men were eroding.
In other words, if men take two steps back, and women one, we all wind up behind.