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What helps women helps men

Job seekers at a community employment center in Pasadena, California, in 2009.

Story highlights

  • Liza Mundy: Recession changed the economic balance between men and women
  • Mundy: While men lost jobs, many women became sole breadwinners
  • She says the sexes don't have opposing interests as some say in the "war on women"
  • Mundy: Recession would have been worse if women were not ensconced in the workplace

Two years ago, I visited a Michigan jobs bank to see how the Great Recession had altered the economic balance between the sexes. Though the recession was technically over, the intake room was full of men: laid-off factory and construction workers, former auto industry employees, all of them struggling to adapt to a changing economy -- and master a computerized jobs database.

Helping them were staffers who showed the men how to draw up an electronic resume or how to choose a search term. Virtually all the staffers were female, and all knew exactly what the men were going through. That's because the staffers all had laid-off husbands. The women had left behind former roles as stay-at-home mothers and secondary earners, taking positions at the jobs bank and becoming their households' sole breadwinners.

That dynamic was occurring everywhere in America: men thrown out of work, women filling the breach.

During the recession and beyond, wives stepped up to the plate as they have never done before. In 2009, working wives contributed 47% of family earnings, a 2 percentage point jump from the year before and a new high, according to an analysis of the prior 15 years by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. For the most part, the women I interviewed were cheerful and stoic about this turn of events. One mourned her former stay-at-home status and said of her husband: "He had my life. And I wanted it back." But most felt proud of keeping their homes out of foreclosure.

Liza Mundy

Recently, I checked back with these women. In most cases their husbands had finally found new work, but the women had kept their full-time jobs. Bank accounts were too depleted; the future seems too fragile for them to go back to life before 2007.

Relationships had also been permanently reconfigured. One former stay-at-home mom reported that her husband was setting up shop as an independent consultant, so she remained the higher earner as well as the parent, now, who worked outside the house. Their sons' school artwork attested to the fact that her husband was the hands-on parent, the one who took them to the school bus and welcomed them home: In the drawings the boys brought home, his image had displaced hers.

    Here's an oft-ignored truth: Men's and women's economic interests are not nearly so separate as the current debate is making them out to be. For weeks, even months — longer than anyone would have thought possible —we have been mired in a debate over who, if anybody, is waging a "war on women."

    The argument has segued from reproductive issues to economic ones, with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claiming that President Obama's economic policies hurt women. Romney argues that women have lost the majority of jobs since Obama took office while men have fared better. Administration officials countered by saying (correctly) that this was a bit of an accounting trick. In reality, men lost by far the bulk of jobs during the recession. While it's true that women suffered when the recession began to affect state and local budgets, leading to job loss for teachers and other government workers, overall, men were in worse shape and are still emerging.

    The idea that there is one economy for men and another for women is, to a certain extent, true. Though many fields are now gender integrated — and some have flipped — it still holds true that construction and manufacturing are dominated by men, teaching and health care by women. For this reason, policies do affect the sexes differently. Shovel-ready construction stimulus projects favor men, state and local government cutbacks can be harder on women.

    But to suggest that what helps men -- men's jobs returning -- hurts women, or vice-versa, is wrong. For men lucky enough to be partnered with women who held or took employment during the worst of the downturn, their lot was eased. And now, for women partnered with men who lost recession-era jobs, the fact that some male sectors have experienced a bit of a rebound is good news, and eases their own burden.

    What all the debates have failed to note is that when men's and women's economic prospects are presented as being at odds, it encourages the wrong notion that the sexes have opposing interests. This is not true.

    The sexes, increasingly, are able to support and shield one another during times of hardship. While much has been made about a "decline of men," it's important to understand that women did not bring about any decline: Women prevented men from declining further.

    The economy is changing, away from an industrial past that offered high-wage jobs to male high school graduates. This would be happening anyway. Good thing women have entered the work force, become better trained and educated, and made strides. The past recession would have been much, much worse — more genuinely Depression-like — were women not ensconced in the American workplace. That some men are now able to pick up the slack comes as good news: The women I interviewed in Michigan would be surprised to learn that their husbands' re-employment constitutes a war on their interests.

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