How the Green Economy Can Promote Equal Opportunities for Women

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Dollars & Sense

How the Green Economy Can Promote Equal Opportunities for Women

by
Jeannette Wicks-Lim

Create jobs. End the recession. Save the environment. What else can transforming our fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy do? How about create unprecedented employment opportunities for women? Readers of Linda Hirshman’s recent New York Times editorial may think this is a dubious claim. She sparked a debate over the gender bias in Obama’s stimulus plan by asking, “Where are the new jobs for women?” She makes a good point. Transitioning to a clean-energy economy has the makings of a decent jobs program. Unfortunately, many of these jobs are in male-dominated industries such as construction.

Therefore, the next question we should ask is: “How do we get women into these new jobs?” Women would benefit significantly from gaining access to these male-dominated jobs that pay decent wages. Take for example the $18.72 average wage of carpenters, 99% of whom are men. This wage can cover the basic needs of a small family. Compare this to the $11.48 average wage of preschool teachers, 98% of whom are women. At this wage, a preschool teacher would have to work in excess of 25 hours more per week to support a similar living standard.

In fact, transforming our fossil-fuel economy to a clean-energy economy presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to make real headway in integrating male-dominated workplaces. This is precisely because so many federal dollars will be injected into the male-dominated construction industry.

First, the billions of dollars being injected into the construction industry through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) can come with strings attached. Currently, construction contracts involving more than $10,000 in federal funds are covered by Executive Order 11246, which requires that contractors adopt affirmative-action goals to reduce the under-representation of women and minorities in their workforce. In other words, the ARRA dollars can be used to coax employers into adopting affirmative-action policies—the only policies that attack workplace segregation head-on.

Second, the federal government’s deep pockets can support the very type of construction projects that are most successful at meeting affirmative action goals: large, long-term projects. Large construction projects have the capacity to absorb new workers while keeping adequate numbers of journey-level workers on a construction site. Long-term projects better accommodate the training needs of new workers who need time to develop their skills. An excellent example is the government’s funding of high-speed rail corridors; over $8 billion have been committed to creating hundreds of miles of new rail service over the next several years.

Securing increased opportunities for women, however, requires more than just an increase in the reach of federal regulations into industries with a history of discrimination. We also need better enforcement of these regulations by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program. More adequate staffing would be a good place to start. We must also fund pre-apprenticeship and outreach programs, as well as wrap-around services (e.g., child care subsidies, mentoring) to increase the supply of qualified women.

It would, of course, be cheaper to simply re-hire currently unemployed male construction workers—not an insignificant fact in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. However, programs such as the Apprenticeship Opportunities Project in Seattle have taught us that publicly funded construction projects can successfully raise the number of female apprentices in their workforce while remaining profitable. In other words, although buying into a tradition of discrimination may stretch our tax dollars further, it is not our only option.

We should not ignore other challenges that women face in the current recession, such as the severe cuts in funding to the female-dominated education industry. At the same time, the Obama administration’s commitment to constructing a clean energy economy has put before us the best opportunity yet to integrate women into decent-paying male-dominated jobs. We must seize this opportunity.

Jeannette Wicks-Lim is an assistant research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute, UMass-Amherst.

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