Should Job Creation Favor Men?

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That’s the title of this op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, written by Feminist Law Profs Melissa Murray (Berkeley) and Darren Rosenblum (Pace). Here’s the text:

The recent stimulus efforts have a prompted a sense of deja vu. In 1944, with the Great Depression a recent memory, the Roosevelt administration considered the effects of World War II’s end on the U.S. economy. The end of the war meant that the labor market likely would be flooded by returning veterans clamoring for jobs. Anticipated unemployment, coupled with reduced industrial output, presaged economic disaster. Eager to avert a new economic crisis, Congress enacted the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Since its enactment, the G.I. Bill has been lauded as the law that “made modern America,” rewarding veterans, democratizing higher education, expanding home ownership and laying the foundation for the economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s. The bill relieved pressure on the labor market by sending former soldiers, mostly men, to college or vocational training, and by allowing them to start businesses. Moreover, by expanding home ownership, the bill fueled a boom in home construction, infrastructure spending and consumer purchases.

But the bill also had other, less positive effects: Women, most of whom were not veterans and who entered the labor market during the war to fill jobs vacated by mobilizing men, found their postwar prospects limited. By law, they had to relinquish their jobs to the returning veterans.

Those seeking higher education were also stymied. The G.I. Bill and veterans’ preferences in college admissions meant that only the most qualified women were admitted to coeducational institutions. The rest competed for spots in women’s colleges, which often lacked graduate and professional opportunities. Many women retreated to hearth and home. Some were happy with their lot. Others chafed at the constraints of wifehood, morphing into the angry housewives observed by Betty Friedan.

The G.I. Bill offers important lessons for the present economic situation. Now, as then, policymakers seek to avert economic disaster. To do so, the United States has initiated the fastest budgetary expansion since the end of World War II. Stimulus monies are intended to fuel infrastructure projects and construction, creating jobs and encouraging spending. The banking and automotive bailouts may prevent mass unemployment.

But the bailouts and other stimulus measures aim to bolster the economy by bolstering men. This is perhaps unsurprising. Those most imperiled by the recent economic downturn have been men, who have lost their jobs as the markets plunged. The two flagging industries targeted for bailouts are ones in which men play an outsize role – the automotive and financial services industries. The slump in construction has directly affected men, who make up the bulk of workers in this sector.

Women, who tend to be employed in education and health care, have weathered the downturn better. Indeed, statistics show that, because of the crisis and its effects on men and “male” industries, women will likely surpass men in the workforce, becoming the majority of workers for the first time in our history. If these trends continue, there may be more women working (although they continue to earn less than men) and more families dependent on a female breadwinner.

Thus, the bailout and stimulus measures warrant additional scrutiny – from the perspective of gender equality. It is important to correct our economic course. But it is also important that we not repeat past mistakes by ignoring women’s economic status. We must recognize that the traditional model of male breadwinner and female homemaker has given way to a new division of labor in which women may support themselves or, if coupled, participate equally in bearing the family’s economic load.

As we go forward, policymakers must answer hard questions about work, gender and our efforts to rebuild our economy. Is it sufficient that some women will benefit from these measures through their relationships with male workers? Would this situation be considered a crisis if women were losing their jobs at the same rate as men? Would we readily take on trillions in debt to avoid mass unemployment among women? Would we bolster education and the health care industry, where women are more likely to work? Our history suggests that in our zeal to avoid economic catastrophe, we may focus our efforts too narrowly. As we take steps to avert an economic crisis, we also should lay the foundation for a more egalitarian workforce to protect both men and women from future economic uncertainty.

-Posted by Bridget Crawford

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