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"In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." ABIGAIL ADAMS TO JOHN ADAMS, MARCH 31, 1776

One of the most important pieces of legislation we’ll soon be acting on in Congress is a national economic recovery package. A large portion of the new federal spending—perhaps  as much as 20 percent—will be focused on infrastructure construction, including transportation and school projects, energy efficiency improvements, and green economy investments such as smart grid expansions.

While President-Elect Obama is to be applauded for proposing a recovery plan that focuses on a wide number of areas, including education and healthcare,  the proposed infrastructure spending in the plan overwhelmingly benefits men and won’t be of much help to unemployed women. In 2007, only 9.4 percent of the 11.9 million workers in the construction industry were female and in major infrastructure occupations with an employment base of 100,000 jobs, women held only about 3.9 percent of jobs. Without efforts to increase workforce diversity, this could lead to a massive shift of hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth from women to men.

Women make up nearly half—46 percent—of the total U.S. labor force of 153 million. While the overall unemployment rates of women and men have been similar since 2000, women with children experience much higher unemployment rates. Worse still, there is evidence that women who lose their jobs face a harder time finding new jobs than their male counterparts.

We must not let disparities between men and women in employment and compensation worsen as a result of the recovery act. A few simple steps, if incorporated into the economic recovery package, could help ensure that infrastructure investment can and will benefit women.

1. Expand Training for Women in Non-Traditional Jobs:

We should expand the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women in Apprenticeship and Non-traditional Occupations (WANTO) grant program that "awards competitive grants to recruit, hire, train, and retain women in apprenticeships and non-traditional occupations."

Also, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 allows states to use funds for "preparing students for employment in fields that are traditionally dominated by one gender."  Not only should funding for the Perkins Act increase, but the program should be more narrowly geared toward gender diversification in infrastructure-related jobs through gender equity set-asides and the reestablishment of equity coordinators.  

2.Emphasize goals for hiring and retaining women in non-traditional jobs funded by federal contracts and enforce contracts for full compliance:

We should increase the targets for female employment by federal construction contractors and require them to design and implement plans for hiring and retaining qualified female workers. Selection criteria for contracts could include assessments of these strategies and past performance. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance should rigorously enforce implementation.

3. Provide Incentives for Companies Employing Women:

The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) encourages employers to hire members of families receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, commonly known as welfare) program, among other disadvantaged populations, whose beneficiaries are overwhelmingly women.  Increasing the size of the credit would make it an even stronger incentive for employers.

Another option entails assisting contractors that meet a certain threshold of female employees in non-traditional sectors.  There is already a program in place to help women obtain federal contracts.   While we must do a better job at ensuring that female-owned businesses access more contract dollars, we should also explore a similar assistance program for companies with female workforces above 25 percent in non-traditional occupations, especially in construction.  Gender parity goals should be expanded beyond the capitalist class to the vast majority of women who do not own companies.

I further describe these options and others in a letter to the Predident-Elect.

These steps can be implemented swiftly; during World War II, with the urgent need to ramp up war production, women entered traditionally male jobs that necessitated skilled training—welding, iron molding, skilled machine work—within months.  We must ensure that the biggest jobs program since the Great Depression does not redistribute America’s wealth away from women and funnel their federal taxes and debt obligations into paying for jobs for men.

Responding to the Obama Analysis

The incoming administration has been pro-active in addressing concerns regarding the demographics of the beneficiaries of the act. A recently released report states:

Summing across industries suggests that the total number of created jobs likely to go to women is roughly 42% of the jobs created by the package. Given that so far in the recession women have accounted for roughly 20% of the decline in payroll employment, this calculation could reflect that the stimulus package skews job creation somewhat toward women, possibly as a result of the investments in healthcare, education, and state fiscal relief.

The shortcomings with their argument are:

  1. 42% is not reflective of the 46% of the workforce composed of women.
  1. The jobs they count on for reaching gender parity, like "retail", "financial activities," and "leisure and hospitality" are NOT directly created by the stimulus bill and are optimistic that the economy actually recovers quickly. While some of the areas like education and government jobs are directly created, their formula showing overall gender parity uses extremely optimistic projects for secondary job creation not directly caused by the recovery package.
  1. Also, their own analysis shows that women will likely get most of the lower-paying jobs and fewer of the good-paying jobs in construction and "green" areas.  As for the 13% of women they cite in the construction industry, apparently it includes lower-paying clerical jobs (boosting it from under 7% to 13%). The data on the higher-paying occupations, like carpenter and electrician, only emphasizes the point that women need equal access to good-paying jobs, in which they have traditionally been underrepresented.  

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to reach gender parity when 20% of the money spent is going into an area that benefits 93+% men. The best way to address this is to take this opportunity to provide for more opportunities for women in construction and infrastructure-related jobs to narrow that gap and lead to a more balanced overall package.

Incorporating some of these ideas and others to promote an increase of women in construction-related jobs into the recovery act would meet both the immediate needs of the recovery package and the long-term goals of improving the skill and preparation of our workforce by offering a future filled with greater economic security for women and their families.

You can help by contacting your Representative and encouraging them to sign the Polis letter on gender equity or by emailing the Obama transition team. You can also read the full letter to the President-Elect here.

Let’s work to ensure hope and opportunity for all Americans.

Jared Polis
Member of Congress
Colorado, 2nd Congressional District

Originally posted to Jared Polis on Tue Jan 13, 2009 at 12:05 PM PST.

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