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Need to redefine women's work

December 20, 2008 12:45 IST

Rosie the Riveter must be rolling over in her grave. The feminist icon became a symbol for women's economic prowess during World War II, when 6 million women flocked to the workforce and filled jobs traditionally held by men.

Posters back in the day implored women to "Do The Job That He Left Behind"; the image that still persists on mugs and T-shirts today is of Rosie flexing her muscle under a banner proclaiming "We Can Do It!"

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  • While Rosie's rallying cry of "We Can Do It" is eerily similar to President-elect Barack Obama's "Yes We Can," some women are saying "No, We Can't."

    In an op-ed in Tuesday's New York Times, author Linda Hirshman questioned why women weren't specific beneficiaries of Obama's proposed stimulus package. She urged Obama to consider gender in his plan, which proposes to create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years, mostly in arenas related to infrastructure and the green industry. "There are almost no women," Hirshman complains, "on this road to recovery."

    This view is not just myopic; it is a giant step backward for feminism. Instead of urging women to seek jobs in traditional fields such as childcare or teaching, where they are destined to be underpaid, the just solution is to train women to be competitive in today's economy.

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  • While I do believe Obama's plan should consider women and that women-centered jobs should come with a higher paycheck and more respect, we are doing women a disservice by pushing them into positions at the bottom of the pay scale. It's not just that women have to seek out these opportunities to earn a living wage. Employers must also be willing to offer them these jobs.

    While women's unemployment is growing slightly faster than men's, the answer is not, as Hirshman suggests, to create more low-paying jobs "in fields like social work and teaching, where large numbers of women work." The solution is redefine what we consider women's work.

    If we want to ensure that no woman is left behind in Obama's economy, then we have to claim jobs in non-traditional fields such as construction, trucking and welding as rightfully ours. An added bonus is that these jobs tend to pay more.

    The feminists I grew up admiring told me that men and women are equal, which is why I didn't have to be barefoot, pregnant or kitchen-bound--unless I wanted to be. The fact is, there should not be "women's" work and "men's" work--just work, with a living wage and benefits attached.

    No, the skilled trades aren't considered sexy. But they're sustaining and sustainable, a plus during an economic downturn.

    In fact, during the most recent recession that hit the U.S. from 2002 to 2003, many industries were unable to find enough skilled laborers to fill jobs. My answer is to equip women with the skills to fill these positions. Programs like Washington, D.C.-based Wider Opportunities For Women does just that, training women in construction and related fields. After Hurricane Katrina, the group offered instruction to women in Mississippi so that they could take advantage of the slew of rebuilding jobs in the state.

    Currently truckers, welders and heavy equipment operators are all in high demand. And the pay is substantially higher than the minimum wage: Welders make anywhere from $10 to $18 per hour for production work, and $18 to $28 per hour for construction jobs.

    So my question is: Where have all the Rosies gone? Women have worked hard to prove that we don't belong in the home. So when the economy calls for labor on the factory floor or the construction site, we should rally our inner Rosie.

    Instead of asking for softer, fuzzier positions, why not challenge Obama to inject money into skills-building programs that will train women to take advantage of the funding for infrastructure and the green industry?

    Instead of pouring millions of dollars into welfare programs where quick-fix jobs are the name of the game, why not urge Obama to invest in earn-and-learn programs to teach women skills they can take with them into the workforce?

    In the past, much of the federal funding that has been geared toward women has focused on getting women into jobs quickly, which doesn't leave time for training. But this band-aid solution actually works to keep women out of the skilled workforce.

    Right now, when women are being shed from the economy at alarming rates, the best return on investment is to pour that money into skill-building programs for women that ensure long-term economic benefits for everyone.

    What makes this need all the more urgent is that women, especially single women, are more vulnerable during economic downturns. The answer is to teach them about the opportunities that exist in this slower, greener and (hopefully) improving economy.

    Organizations like Hard Hatted Women, a nonprofit in Cleveland that promotes blue-collar jobs for women, subscribe to a philosophy of "If I can see it, I can be it." That is, the more women work on construction sites, the less unusual it becomes. Come on, ladies, let's break through that sheetrock ceiling.

    Ruthie Ackerman, a markets reporter at, is working on a book about Liberian refugee youth in Staten Island.

    Ruthie Ackerman,
    Source: source