Stimulating Gender Equality

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As politicians and pundits debate the need for and contents of an economic stimulus program early in the Obama Administration, one issue has gained less attention than it should, and the attention it has gotten is – to my mind – largely of the wrong kind. The issue is Gender. How should women’s interests figure in the decisions about who and what should get invested in as we try to jump start our economy? Hundreds of billions of dollars in new public spending will likely form a significant part of the new administration’s priorities – roads and bridges will finally be repaired, new schools built, broadband internet services will extend to rural and low income communities, and major investments will be made in green technology. Linda Hirshman, a well-know cultural feminist and frequent contributor to the Huffington Post was recently interviewed on the NewsHour where she said that the best way to include women in the stimulus package would be to include ample funding for health care and schools since that would mean nurses and teachers would be beneficiaries of the bounty – professions where women are over-represented. After all, the bailout money doled out by the Bush Administration has largely ended up in the suitpockets of men: regular bankers and investment bankers.

I shuddered when I heard Hirshman say this on”the TV machine,”as Rachel Maddow calls it. I care deeply about the opportunity to expand gender-based justice provided by an enormous increase in federal spending. But the solution to gender-bias in the federal bailout isn’t to reinforce other gender asymmetries in the wage labor market. Sure, schools and hospitals should get ample amounts of funding in the stimulus package, but not because women work there, rather because our schools and hospitals are crumbling.

The hard work we need to do RIGHT NOW is make it clear to the Obama Administration that a serious commitment to gender equality requires that they tie the funding of road construction, school rebuilding, development of green technologies – and even the financial services industry – to non-discrimination on the basis of sex and race, but also to data collection and reporting on who is getting the money. Who owns the companies that get stimulus funding, who gets hired by those companies, and what work they’re doing. Affirmative action has become a dirty word, but there are plenty of other means by which the work traditionally done by white men can be transformed into work that does not have a proper gender and racial identity. New apprenticeship programs for women and people of color who have been closed out of certain industries will be needed – particularly for those who are retooling themselves after having been laid off. Many of these industries are unionized, and this may mean taking on the unions – strong supporters of Obama’s presidential campaign.

Funding sectors in which women are traditionally well-represented, as urged by Hirshman, accomplishes an old fashioned”women’s rights”victory by sending the money to where the women are. Yet by ignoring the gender justice stakes in sectors where women aren’t, we risk leaving in place the deeper root causes that make pink ghettos recognizable in the first place – the idea of”women’s work”and”men’s work”based on sex-role stereotyping.

We all remember the Rosie the Riveters from World War II who did the men’s work while the men were overseas fighting fascism, but those jobs were”given”back to the men when they returned from the War – after all, those were”their”jobs. The current financial emergency gives us the opportunity to make a longer-lasting transformation of the wage-labor market.

When we get on the phone to the Obama people telling them to pay attention to this issue, guess who answers the phone? Larry Summers. He’s the guy in charge of Obama’s economic team working on the stimulus package. And you remember Larry Summers – he’s the fella who holds the view that boys are naturally better at math and science than girls.

We’ve got lots of work to do, don’t we?

- Katherine Franke, cross-posted from Columbia Law School’s Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

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