What Wisconsin means for women.

Throughout all the coverage of the budget battle in Wisconsin these past few weeks, including a great deal of comparisons of public- and private-sector workers’ pay and benefits, I have been surprised that no major news story I have seen has brought up the issue of the differential effect Wisconsin’s legislation will have on women versus men.
You’d think this would have been one of the first things people noticed about the bill, given the fact that police and fire—two public-sector job fields where it’s safe to say men greatly outnumber women—have been notably exempt from Scott Walker’s assaults on state and local employees, and the fact that some of the most active opposition to the bill has been from education and health care workers—areas that it is also safe to say are more female than male—but I’ve seen next to nothing about it. You’d think someone would have noticed the police-and-firemen-versus-nurses-and-teachers angle, even if just on that (admittedly overly) simplistic plane, but if it’s been out there much, I haven’t heard it.
I’ve had another post in process, related more specifically to education, on this issue—how the attack on teachers is also an attack on women—but I finally found someone writing about the important gender aspects of the current debate over public workers’ pay and benefits. Jennifer Clark’s excellent piece breaks down women’s and men’s public sector jobs on the local, state, and national levels, and clearly shows that the legislation in play in Wisconsin and elsewhere affects working women far more than working men.
Even if we set aside the historical dimensions of this gender breakdown—the cultural pressures that push women into fields like health care and education (which are surely very, very important here, and which I do not by any means want to minimize)—we can see why it might be the case that women would have gone into public sector jobs. Benefits surely have a great deal to do with it. If you are a woman, looking to start a family, are you going to go for a job that is steady, secure, and has good benefits (like health care and maternity leave), or one that might ask you to travel a lot, move somewhere else, that doesn’t carry much job security, and might not have a very good health plan, or might not be interested in giving you parental leave? Of course men would find these perks attractive too, but my point is that women in particular have specific reasons to go into the public sector, even if we don’t take into account the fact that teaching and nursing and social work and library work are traditionally “women’s” fields (and largely in the pay of the state).
I recently made the point that the state should be setting the bar for decent pay and benefits. The situation in the midwest should therefore give us all reason for concern about the future of women in the workplace, and the future of the families that depend upon female public employees’ pay and benefits for their food, shelter, and health care.


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