Changed: The middle class redefined

Women slip behind as economy picks up

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS and KRISTIN TILLOTSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2012 - 8:01 AM

As job creation improves the outlook for men, women are smarting from cuts and old stereotypes.

For women in the middle class, the economic recovery is turning out to be a reversal of fortune.

Women held onto their jobs so much better than men during the recession that some even called it a "man-cession."

But now, even as politicians and industry brag of job creation in the millions, job growth for women lags far behind men. Old stereotypes casting men as primary breadwinners and women as employees distracted by child-care responsibilities are reemerging as hiring revs up. Pregnancy discrimination complaints surged in the recession and remain high in recovery.

It all has a frustratingly familiar ring to Sheridan Zuther, who zips among seven part-time jobs as she tries to hold onto her home and the bottom edge of the middle class.

"I have always heard ... that men are usually the first to get the jobs and that they get higher pay," she said. "But it's frustrating."

Unexpected setbacks post-recession mean lives once graced by little luxuries that made working easier -- housecleaning service, restaurant meals, nice vacations -- are giving way to evenings cooking and cleaning, squeezing budgets and clipping coupons.

"It's like men fell into a hole 600 million feet deep and women fell into a hole 300 million feet deep, and now the men have started to climb out faster," said Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C. public policy think tank.

Since hitting its job-loss "bottom" in February 2010, the nation has recovered 3.2 million jobs. But women only got 23 percent of them.

"It struck us as peculiar that women did not even get 25 percent of the jobs. They are actually falling behind," said Kate Gallagher Robbins, senior policy analyst for the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. "It's troubling."

Settling for part time

Zuther is an organized blur, her hair flying as she juggles her fractured work schedule.

She started a recent day working two temp jobs by phone from home, then was on stage at the Nicollet Cafe that night. The next day she interviewed for a job at a theater non-profit across town, squeezed in more temp work, then dashed off at dusk to handle guests and concessions at the Guthrie Theater Lab. She gives voice lessons, sells tickets, produces musicals for her own theater company and performs with jazz group Five by Design when they're in town.

She's looking for an eighth job. "Every little bit sure helps," said Zuther, 37. When she can't make enough jobs dovetail, she lives on beans and rice, or potato soup.

It wasn't always this hard.

For five years, she toured the country with Five by Design. But in the recession, bookings dropped and her $28,000 income shrank to $17,000. She came home to Columbia Heights last year to patch together a better living.

Women have worked part-time more than men for decades. But now twice as many -- one in five -- are doing so because they can't find full-time work, according to the Department of Labor.

Executive women languish

In 2009, Wayzata entrepreneur Katy Burke and her husband were co-founders of a company that sold stainless-steel storage systems.

She brought an executive background to the task, working as a chief operating officer before having children. Two years ago, she and her husband were living an upper middle-class life: kids in private school, house on a lake and hired household help.

But when fuel and stainless steel prices surged in the recession, they were forced to sell.

Burke, 48, is now divorced and has primary custody of the kids, who attend public school. "It was a perfect storm, losing both a business and a marriage, at a tough time to find a job," Burke said. "My life took a 180-degree turn." She is doing her own cleaning and rents out half of her home.

After a grueling six-month search for an executive position -- sometimes competing with 500 other applicants -- Burke gave up and regrouped. Now she is a consultant with the nonprofit WomenVenture, helping other struggling women find financial security.

Women have stalled in workplace leadership since the recovery began. The number holding executive and board posts in Minnesota's 100 largest companies has been flat since 2010, according to a report on the status of Minnesota women and girls released in February by the Women's Foundation and the Humphrey Institute's Center on Women and Public Policy.

Across the business and professional service sector, women gained just 39 percent of new jobs since recovery began, despite being 45 percent of the workforce, U.S. Department of Labor data show.

Burke's ex-husband, Tom Van Hercke, rebounded more easily: In just three months a former board member hired him as a marketing executive.

Jobs created go to men

Women's ebbing job numbers are tied to which jobs are being created, researchers say.

In manufacturing, a job creation hotbed, men have gained back 431,000 jobs -- while women have lost 31,000.

"Are we back to the Rosie-the-Riveter phenomenon?" said Joe Mulford, dean of manufacturing and customized training at Hennepin Technical College. "During the war, women proved their capability by turning out all those weapons. But as soon as those guys were available again, then the women lost their jobs."

Enrollment of women in Mulford's apprenticeship program more than tripled to 24 percent over two years as they sought skills to get well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Even in the retail sector -- often strong for women -- men gained 365,000 jobs in recovery and women lost 18,000. Fresh hiring in auto factories and dealerships seems to be fueling men's gains, said Paul LaPorte, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist.

Inaccurate stereotypes

Across all job sectors, women are bumping into old stereotypes that hobble their ability to thrive in the recovery, workplace experts say.

"We're getting consistent reports of a woman being told that a man got a promotion over her because he has a family to support," said Joan Williams, a law professor running the Center for Worklife Law at the University of California. In Minnesota, half of working mothers provide 50 percent or more of their family's income -- an increase of more than 10 percent over just the last two years.

"Women with caregiving responsibilities are assumed to have extra baggage, to be more expensive and less productive employees," Williams added.

It gets even worse if they are pregnant. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fielded 5,587 pregnancy discrimination complaints in 2007. After the recession started, filings spiked over 6,300 and haven't fallen to pre-recession levels yet. Agency officials suspect "this is the tip of the iceberg," and that victims fear retribution in a brutal job market if they complain, said spokeswoman Christine Nazer.

Public sector haven is gone

Nearly 60 percent of public-sector jobs -- teachers, city clerks, librarians -- are held by women.

But as governments at all levels contract to reduce deficits, public sector jobs are vanishing -- even in recovery, said Joan Entmacher, family economic security vice president at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.

As federal stimulus money dried up, women lost 321,000 local government jobs to men's 177,000. Early U.S. Postal Service data show men gaining 10,000 jobs since July 2009 and women losing 95,000, LaPorte said.

That public sector job loss is eroding decades of progress toward pay equity -- mandatory in government jobs for 29 years. In the private sector -- where women turn after losing those jobs -- they earn just 77 cents to every dollar a man makes, according to a 2011 report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Suddenly the breadwinner

As 2010 approached, Michelle Maher figured she had weathered the worst of the recession.

The Cleveland Co. employee benefits firm she owns in Bloomington found new clients when old ones closed their companies or downsized.

But in November 2009, her husband lost his job. They have two kids in college. She became the only breadwinner.

Half of Minnesota's working mothers now provide more than 50 percent of their family's income -- up 27 percent from two years ago, the Women's Foundation report showed.

"Suddenly, as a woman you feel that you have a lot more responsibility. ... I don't have my cleaning women anymore. So gosh, look at the dust piling up and those dirty clothes," Maher said. Daily runs to restaurants stopped. She started clipping coupons -- even as she heard the recession was over.

"It sure didn't feel like it," Maher said.

The months before her husband found a new job, but at less pay, left a lasting mark on Maher's lifestyle.

"We are suddenly living like we should have been all along. Every dollar has a name and we think twice before we spend it on something extra."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725 Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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