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Recovering Amidst A Gender Gap


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

Coming up, diplomacy in the Middle East. We'll talk about John Kerry's first trip abroad as secretary of State. And later, the movie that David Duchovny could watch a million times.

But first, another effect of the sequester. Women workers could be hit disproportionately hard. Federal office and clerical jobs filled largely by women could be on the chopping block, according to Bloomberg. Gender gaps in the workplace, though, have been a longstanding problem.

Last year, full-time working women earned just 80 percent of their male counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though it had seemed during the recession that women might be making strides, female-dominated industries like health care held steady despite the downturn while male-dominated industries like construction suffered. Overall, men lost twice as many jobs as women in the recession, according to the Pew Research Center.

But now that employers are hiring again and the job market is slowly picking up, it looks like women are once again getting left behind. That's the story of Nkechi Feaster.

NKECHI FEASTER: I didn't expect it to get as hard as it has gotten.

HEADLEE: At the start of the recession, she was working as a receptionist at a Washington, D.C., law firm. When she got laid off, she found another office job. But soon, the axe fell again. She thought her luck had finally turned around when she got work in a military hospital, but the Army closed that facility and left her in the same hard place again.

FEASTER: Since I was the last one in, I was the first one to let go. And that was going on two and a half years ago. So each layoff has gotten longer and longer.

HEADLEE: Feaster wound up losing her home and moving into a shelter. Luckily, she since found an apartment with the help of a federal housing program, and she hasn't given up looking for work. But I asked her if she's surprised that it's taking so long.

FEASTER: Oh, absolutely. You know, with me, I don't have a degree. I don't have tenure at one job. I don't have one job title over the course of my career. I've been doing office work, admin for 11 years, but it's been receptionist and clerk and this and that. So I know there are things lacking on my resume that can keep me from a job, but I'm still a very marketable employee.

So the first three months, I didn't feel that bad. I understood it was a recession. I understood it was going to be harder than normal to get a job, but I did not expect things to go downhill. After each layoff, it took longer and it got harder and harder. And what I realize is the reason that even the temp assignments started to dwindle is because everyone was out of work - those with degrees, those with tenure, those with more experience than I had. And even now, you know, I've been on some awesome interviews, but I really didn't expect to be still out of work.

HEADLEE: You know, the recession's been over. We're now in a slow but steady recovery, and yet men are getting jobs at four times the rate of women. You're nodding your head already. This doesn't surprise you.

FEASTER: No. Not at all. Not at all. And, you know, like I said, I know what is hurting me. You know, I know what things I am lacking. But still to see most of the jobs that were referred to me by someone I know, it was funny that I sat down and thought about it, huh, the people who got the job were men most of the time.

HEADLEE: So how do you make it? Is there a time limit on how long you can cobble together?

FEASTER: Well, I can say after two and a half years of not having a job, things are pretty dire. But, no, I don't have a limit. Because of such unexpected times, I can't put a limit on it. I can't say, OK, I'm only going to look, you know, for another six months and then - but what do I do after that six months, you know? Do I just stop completely? I can't do that. I have to keep going until something happens.

HEADLEE: Nkechi Feaster, she's still struggling to get rehired in the recovery.

So why is it so hard for women job seekers to make that something happen? I spoke with Mary Gatta, senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit research group. She explained why women are getting left behind in the recovery.

MARY GATTA: As the economy began to recover, we began to see men outpacing women in terms of the job gain. So men were gaining jobs and continue gaining jobs at higher rates than women. And compounding that is even during the recession, although men's unemployment rate was higher, the wage gap was still very real. And, in fact, women during the recovery began to lose jobs, particularly jobs in the public sector.

HEADLEE: We just got a study from the Census Bureau that finds there are more men becoming nurses. But when they take on the job of nurse, they're outearning their female counterparts, even in the same job title. Explain what's going on here.

GATTA: Nursing has traditionally obviously been a field that's about 92 percent female. And while women still make up the bulk of that labor market, men have made some inroads. But what we began to see happening is what happens in many traditionally female jobs, is that men outearn them. Some people call this a glass escalator that men ride glass escalators to quicker advancement and higher wages.

HEADLEE: We hear the term gender gap all the time, but what is that gap?

GATTA: I mean, the wage gap is not new historically. In fact, we can trace the wage gap back. The earliest measures are back in Paris in the 1300s. Part of it is what we call - sociologist call the gendering, right, of occupations. And that historically, we did not think women were working to pay for housing and food, that they were working for what was called pin money, kind of just extra money for spending, which is not the case at all.

Two-thirds of women today are either the primary or co-breadwinner of their families. But when we're thinking within these very gendered mindsets that women are not a main economic contributor, we don't think about paying them fairly.

HEADLEE: What's the silver lining here, Mary? Please tell me that there is one.

GATTA: You know, we still have a ways to go and there's a lot more work to be done to ensure equality in our labor market. We have made progress, right? The wage gap has shrunk. But I think what is also a silver lining is that we're talking about this more. So women are more aware of the fact that they need to better understand the occupations that they're in, the earnings that they're getting.

So the more education and awareness we can do on the part of workers, and also on the part of employers. Lots of times, employers do want to do good. And if we can help provide employers with the tools to make sure that they're paying their workers fairly, that is another benefit.

HEADLEE: That's Mary Gatta, senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women. Thank you so much, Mary.

GATTA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.