December 06, 2008

Productive work, care work, and economic stimulus

Via Feministing, an Op-Ed by Randy Albelda in the Boston Globe. Albelda is arguing that all the talk of economic stimulus has focussed on keeping manufacturing jobs (the automakers, for example) and infrastructure projects, and that, since these industries are all male-dominated, the stimulus plans floated thus far are neglecting such female-dominated industries as education and health care (remember that the vast majority of people working in health care are secretarial staff, support staff, and nurses, who are all still much more likely than not to be women). They are thereby neglecting the large percentage of families with children (Abelda says 25%, which sounds about right) `headed and supported' by women.

At Feministing, Courtney responds as follows:

But we must not lose sight of the fact that caretaking, teaching, and wellness roles have been traditionally both imposed and embraced by women. Sometimes women have authentically been drawn to these fields; I certainly have female friends who love teaching, social work, and other caretaking professions. But some have been pressured into these professions along with traditional gender roles....

So, yes Albelda, let's pressure Obama to create lots of jobs in the educational and healthcare fields, but let's ask that his team do it, not because traditionally gendered jobs will continue perpetually to fall into "dude jobs" and "lady jobs," but because caretaking is valued as much as construction. And further, let's continue to support efforts like Men Teach and Non Traditional Employment for Women, that encourage both men and women to break out of traditional gender roles and follow their true calling.

I really only want to disagree with Courtney about three words. More specifically, her use of `but' in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and twice in the first sentence of the second paragraph. Using `but' in the way she does here, she suggests a dichotomy between (a) creating jobs in female-dominated fields as well as male-dominated fields in order to create jobs for both men and women, and (b) recognising that those gender disparities are unjust and therefore should be challenged.

But there's no dichotomy here. (a) is a short-term project, especially when we're talking about an economic stimulus plan with a horizon of about five years, while (b) is a very long-term project. (a) is exactly the sort of thing we want a progressive-minded welfare liberal/Keynsian state to be doing, while (b) is probably best accomplished by the sort of non-government insurgency groups Courtney names. Neither the plans themselves, nor their justifications, are in the least bit competitive. Indeed, I would claim that the two are mutually supporting: It's precisely because of the injustices associated with these gender disparities that pouring money into male-dominated fields, to the neglect of female-dominated fields, will benefit women less than pouring money into female-dominated fields as well. The barriers that prevent women from pursuing careers in construction, for example, are why it's important to create job opportunities for them in fields like education and health care, in the short term, even as we work to tear down these barriers in the long term.

1 comment:

Noumena said...

A related comment here:

First, the official unemployment rate is a bad measurement, especially for women. Infamously, it's only the measure of people who are looking for work and can't find any. Stay-at-home moms or people who have given up on trying to actively find a job aren't counted. This is why, if you read Paul Krugman's blog, he always charts the percentage of working-age adults who are employed, rather than the unemployment rate.

Second, there are a variety of other variables besides employment that should be taken into account. If employed women are more likely to be the sole provider for their family, or have fewer savings, or lower pay, then they might still be harder hit than men even if their employment rate is lower. I think this plays against both Hirschman's supporters and her opponents: the economics here are much, much more complicated than simply tossing around unemployment rates suggests.

Third, Hirschman's underlying point isn't so much about the economics of a recession. It's about the relative value placed on women's work and men's work. The two basic arguments for massive government spending on infrastructure projects (men's work) are that it (1) puts money in the hands of consumers, thereby increasing demand, and (2) produces valuable long-term social goods (sturdy bridges, for example). I would suggest the strongest version of Hirschman's argument is that (1) and (2) apply equally to such projects as subsidising increased pay and educational opportunities (ie, more scholarships and grants) for nurses and primary care physicians, primary and secondary school teachers (and librarians!), early childhood educators and other childcare providers, and other female-dominated lines of work. The focus on infrastructure is androcentric insofar as it ignores the fact that (a) women are consumers, too, and (b) women's work creates equally valuable long-term social goods, in the form of a healthy and educated populace, or what Hirschman calls human capital.

(Please note that I'm using `women's work' and `men's work' in a conventional sense. I don't think that any kind of work is essentially gendered, and I wholeheartedly agree that we should be encouraging men to go into women-dominated fields and vice-versa. But that project doesn't strike me as relevant to the question of what economic policies we should be pursuing over the next 6-18 months to get out of this recession. I made this point a while ago.)