Kate Bahn is an Economist at the Center for American Progress. Her work focuses on labor markets, care work, entrepreneurship, retirement, the role of gender and race in the economy, and inequality. The views expressed by columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Investopedia.
“Economic anxiety” became one of the major takeaways of 2016. As Mike Konczal wrote after he re-watched footage of a Trump rally after the election, Trump had a strong message on the need to create jobs to alleviate the fear caused by economic instability and rising economic inequality. But underlying this jobs message was an important gender dynamic. The focus on jobs was really a focus on manufacturing jobs, and those jobs belong overwhelmingly to men.
As many workers and families who face stagnating wages and increasing economic inequality know, the changing structure of the global economy and the declining importance of American manufacturing has left many behind, particularly those who worked manufacturing jobs in former industrial centers like the Midwest. Manufacturing has been declining since 2000, and men, who make up over 70% of the entire industry, lost the most. Moreover, the decline in manufacturing has spillover effects to the surrounding area and to other similar workers.
The narrative about the importance of manufacturing to the American economy and what it means to lose that dominance is inextricably linked to notions of masculinity, in particular valuing men’s contributions to the economy, which has led to a perceived loss of masculinity when those jobs go away. The right’s populist economic message can’t be separated from the masculine rhetoric behind it. The importance of manufacturing jobs plays into gendered ideas of strength and power. A manly economy is a strong economy.
At the same time, the occupations with the highest job growth tend to be service sector industries like education and health services, which are overwhelmingly female-dominated with women making up almost 75% of all workers. Service sector jobs are projected to continue to be the fastest growing industries for the next ten years. As economist Betsey Stevenson pointed out in her article Manly Men Need to Do More Girly Jobs, if men want to support their families, they should be willing to work in female-dominated and “feminine” jobs like those where you provide care to others.
But many jobs in growing service-sector and feminized industries lack the wages and security provided by manufacturing jobs of earlier eras, which were backed by a strong labor movement that either excluded women or treated them as a second-class, special case.
So for men who have lost their sense of self and their ability to provide for the families, doing jobs typically performed by women might not be enough. In fact, many female-dominated jobs are paid less just because they are associated with women. What’s more, there is a pay penalty for jobs that require caring for others. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle: work considered to be gendered female is devalued, and female-dominated and feminized caring jobs continue to be dominated by women. Wages in these occupations remain low precisely because they are majority female.
For example, take home health aides, who are 90% women and earn a median salary $21,380 (with half of home health aides earning less than that), just above working full-time at minimum wage in many states. These industries have recently begun organizing to demand better wages and working conditions through unions like the Domestic Workers Alliance and the Service Employees International Union. But the work of organizing is made more difficult with the expansion of “Right to Work” laws and other measures designed to hobble the labor movement.
These may be related: the labor movement from the 19th century onward has often segregated men from women workers, and policymakers have argued that care-taking should not be interfered with because it is altruistic work. If men are going to be brought back to the labor force, the gendering of service work must be undone at the same time labor movements become ecumenical.
Addressing the economic anxiety felt by many also means having an honest discussion about how gender (and race and ethnicity and nationality) shape our perceptions and the reality of economic stability and success. In addition to strengthening our manufacturing sector and empowering manufacturing workers, we need to start valuing women’s economic contributions as care workers and find more gender equality in the labor market to begin to address deep structural economic inequality underlying these trends.