Recession Drives Women Into Role Of Breadwinner

An employee at the American Disposables factory in Ware, Mass. i i

An employee at the American Disposables Inc., factory works on the assembly line in October in Ware, Mass. The factory, which has been producing diaper and paper products for more than 30 years, recently had to lay off most of its employees. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images
An employee at the American Disposables factory in Ware, Mass.

An employee at the American Disposables Inc., factory works on the assembly line in October in Ware, Mass. The factory, which has been producing diaper and paper products for more than 30 years, recently had to lay off most of its employees.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are a lot of women who earn more than their husbands, or have jobs once held only by men. But when you look at the U.S. economy as a whole, that's not what stands out.

"Our labor market still remains highly segregated," says labor economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress.

So far, 7.5 million jobs have been lost in this recession, and the lion's share of them — 75 percent — were held by men. Boushey says men have been hit hard during the downturn because they're concentrated in the industries most affected, including construction, auto manufacturing and Wall Street. Positions in these fields also pay pretty well.

Meanwhile, more and more women have had to become their family's primary source of income. But women still don't make as much money as men.

Careers That Pay Less

"So because women are concentrated in caring jobs, like child-care workers or nursing or home health aides, many of those are paid far less than comparably skilled male jobs," Boushey says.

A woman today makes 77 cents to a man's dollar. That pay gap has held steady for the past decade. It means that when a woman becomes the breadwinner, her family must survive not just on less, but on less than half of their previous income.

Joan Entmacher, a vice president with the National Women's Law Center, says women are also less likely to get health insurance coverage on the job.

Women In The Workforce

Women as a percentage of nonfarm payrolls, 1964-2009

Chart: Women In The Workforce

"They are still more likely to work part time and take time out of the labor force for unpaid care giving, which lowers their overall earnings and their opportunity to get other benefits such as retirement benefits," Entmacher says.

Stalled Legislative Action

There are bills pending in Congress to strengthen fair pay laws, to mandate paid sick days, and to make it easier to ask for a flexible work schedule. But this legislation is stalled. Entmacher hopes that families' increasing reliance on women's work during this recession will get lawmakers to pay more attention.

Entmacher says women have also been losing their jobs, and the toll has been especially hard on single mothers. In the latest month, unemployment among single moms hit 11.6 percent.

Overall, women's share of layoffs has been increasing, and could go up sharply if state and local governments shed more jobs, like teachers.

But the disproportionate losses for men in this downturn have given women's role in the economy a sizable boost. It's pushed their share of jobs toward an all-time high of 50 percent. Boushey says that rise is part of a long-term trend.

"When you look from the period from the mid-1970s to today, if you are a married couple and you don't have a wife working — your standard of living is exactly the same today as it was back in the mid-1970s in inflation-adjusted terms," she says.

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