Skip to main content

What helps women helps men

By Liza Mundy, Special to CNN
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Wed April 18, 2012
Job seekers at a community employment center in Pasadena, California, in 2009.
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

Editor's note: Liza Mundy is the author of "The Richer Sex" and "Michelle: A Biography." She is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- 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.

Liza Mundy
Liza Mundy

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.

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Liza Mundy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 9:54 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT