Women's Work

07/10/2011 15:30 BST | Updated 04/12/2011 10:12 GMT

How inclusive is the Obama administration? Published just last month, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ron Suskind's new book Confidence Men depicts the early years of the Obama administration as a testosterone-driven boys' club "hostile" to the women in its employ, with one adviser claiming she felt like a "piece of meat." Suskind credits senior adviser Valerie Jarrett with increasing the number of women in the White House, enhancing their influence, and prompting the President to confront tensions and complaints. Indeed, Jarrett Chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls, founded in March 2009 to ensure that federal policies and initiatives address the singular issues of female constituents. Controversy surrounding the accuracy and verifiability of Suskind's claims comes just as the Council seeks to promote the American Jobs Act, which, if passed, will affect millions of women. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill later this month.

Women account for 8.5% of the unemployed. In the first stages of the recession, their positions seemed more secure than men's, but in what is now called the "recovery" period, unemployed women have had a tougher time finding jobs. This is due in large part to the government, education and service sectors in which women traditionally have worked, and those currently employed in these areas will be threatened by new budget cuts.

The four main elements of the American Jobs Act are the extension of unemployment insurance, the Pathways Back to Work initiative, the payroll tax credit, and funding for infrastructural projects. Beyond this general outline, the administration claims the Bill will have an impact on specific communities: African-Americans, veterans, Hispanic families, youth, Asian Americans, Native Americans, low-income households, and women will all be affected.

For the most part, the bill will benefit women only indirectly. For example, 78% of all K-12 educators are women, and the "teacher stabilization" piece will thwart teacher lay-offs; the payroll tax cut will offer relief to all small businesses, including the 900,000 owned by women; and a tax credit to companies hiring military veterans will also affect returning servicewomen. An exception pertains to job training in areas in which women are traditionally underrepresented--transport construction projects.

A White House fact sheet claims that of the $50 billion devoted to infrastructure modernization:

the President's plan would invest an additional $50 million in 2012 to enhance employment and job training opportunities for minorities, women, and socially and economically disadvantaged individuals in transportation related activities, including construction, contract administration, inspection, and security.

Yet despite high-profile endorsements from non-governmental agencies such as the National Organization for Women, the bill's language does not specifically target women and contains only a vague line pertaining to "diversity of training participants" in the relevant section. While this may seem like a minor detail, it in fact points to a major problem, one that plagued the last stimulus package--oversight.

In general, the federal government cedes control to State agencies and local organizations after funds have been distributed. Reports, some of which occur on only an annual basis, determine whether monies have been used correctly and effectively post-distribution.

The Department of Transportation will oversee jobs training for rebuilding highways, updating rail services, and renovating airports. In the case of the DOT, funds are usually allocated to States and local organizations on either a discretionary basis or through competitive grants. There is no guarantee that local entities will use the new federal stimulus package to train unemployed women since diversity criteria can be satisfied in other ways.

What does the issue of oversight mean for individual women seeking jobs training in construction? Most blue-collar infrastructural positions have been described as "hard hat," and given the physical demands of construction jobs, it's difficult to imagine how women will be trained to compete for these positions. Recruitment and retention will also undoubtedly pose problems. It's with good reason that only "a handful of women" work on construction crews.

Most women can't click their heels three times and expect Valerie Jarrett to appear at their side. What can the Council on Women and Girls, or, indeed, the DOT, do to ensure that women are treated respectfully in what could very well be a "hostile" work environment? One hopes that the American Jobs Act isn't merely presenting women with the mirage of opportunity in a desert of unemployment. Women need viable sources of sustainable income, not tokenism.