The April 2nd edition of the Tufts Daily included an article entitled “Women closing in on employment gap.” When I first saw the article title, I frowned; I was aware of how the recession was affecting unemployment rates for men and women, but I hadn’t heard that the employment gap itself was actually closing. After reading further, I was pleased to note that the article did address other issues relating to sex and employment:
According to the economic consulting firm IHS Global Insight, employers in the health care and education sectors added 536,000 jobs in 2008. These are sectors where women are more likely to work. Simultaneously, manufacturing and construction — sectors that are overwhelmingly male — showed a sharp decline in job opportunities last year.
Also significant is the number of women working part-time: Part-time jobs are much more secure in a job market where cutting hours is a popular strategy. Because many more women work part-time than men do, their jobs appear much more secure.
This information is accurate, but what I find troublesome is the failure to problematize this information. Yes, there are significant numbers of women working in health care and in education. But many women working in health care are nurses and social workers, and many women working in education teach lower levels of education (pre-school, elementary school, and middle school). In addition, as you look higher up on the job ladder, you find more and more men; there are significant numbers of male principals and superintendents, as well as male chiefs of medicine and board members. Women in medicine also tend to work in family practice, pediatrics, or gynecology, some of the lower paying medical specialties.
In addition, it isn’t appropriate to compare part-time jobs to full-time jobs; many part-time jobs don’t have the same benefits that full-time jobs do, and even some that do only give them to employees who meet specific requirements.
We are seeing the employment gap narrow in a very specific way right now, and not in a way that is truly beneficial for people, or a way that reflects a change in social attitudes or norms. Women aren’t being hired more because employers are learning to shed biases; women are being fired less because they work part-time more and tend to work in fields that are less drastically affected by the recession. These jobs still pay less than men’s jobs; the wage gap is alive and well.
Therefore, instead of seeing an actual improvement in the economy and the way that women are treated in the workforce, we’re seeing families that have to rely on mothers and wives to be wage-earners even though their jobs tend to pay less and have fewer benefits.
In the final paragraph of the article, the Daily says:
These statistics have instilled optimism in some women’s rights activists hoping for employment equality. Freshman Katie Kopel explained that such excitement should be met with reservations. “[The closing gender gap] should not be misinterpreted as a sign that women are treated equally in the hiring process or the workplace.”
I’m with Miss Kopel; this isn’t what many of us were looking for when we wanted the employment gap gone. Kopel has very concisely summarized two huge issues facing women and employment today: many women aren’t hired because of biases against women, and many women are harassed and treated unfairly in the workplace itself. In addition, as I said earlier, the wage gap is still approximately 71 cents to the dollar on average for women.
While I am very happy that the Daily reported on this issue, and that they recognized many of the reasons why unemployment for men and women is so different during this recession, I am frustrated with the amount of positive spin that the article gives this issue. Yes, I want to see men and women hired equally, paid equally, and treated equally, but to do that, we need to see a shift in societal attitudes. I wonder what will happen when the recession ends; will it be like the end of WWII, when the men came back and demanded their jobs?
As one last thought, consider the meaning of “unemployed.” Are stay-at-home parents employed or not? What does that really mean in terms of women’s employment nationwide?