The last post examined how in recessions women’s movement up career ladders has historically suffered setbacks, with long-term negative effects. Can we break the recessionary pattern today? Absolutely.

Firstly, as Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute notes, flexibility has suddenly become a mainstream business strategy for companies seeking to retain current workers rather than having to start from scratch with new employees come the upturn. Reduced hours are among the cut-backs on the table, until things improve. President Obama endorsed that option in his Inaugural speech, and the savings to the nation when people stay in jobs speak for themselves.

Reduced hours may look like automatic family friendliness, but if the reduction is entirely on the employers’ terms it doesn’t help parents in need of flexibility much more than the standard workweek did. If employers work with employees, male and female, in devising reduced schedules, all parties gain.

And the government can assist. In 17 states, a Shared Work program helps employees and employers who must reduce hours by paying pro-rated unemployment benefits. In 2008 in New York 83% more employers participated in this program than in 2007, and a 2009 surge is already underway. In Texas the program is little known, but word is spreading. This option makes much more sense than layoffs in many environments and should be available nationwide.

Where potential savings on worker health care pushes employers to consider cutting workers they might prefer to cut hours for, government should cover the difference.

A second break with old patterns lies in society’s enormous capital investment in women’s education and in the extensive work experience women now have. Like any other form of capital, business leaders should find ways to utilize this human capital in a downturn. Smart employers will make every effort to hold onto their best talent, whatever the worker’s gender.

Thirdly, the enormity of the failure of the business culture of greed means the time is ripe to rewrite the model and move toward a culture of care. Rather than view the downturn as reason to turn away from initiatives that support women’s participation in better-paid jobs, the nation will be best served if we redouble our efforts in that direction, to take advantage of our full national talent pool.

It’s time for new ideas and big pictures. In today’s troubled economy, one way business and government can collaborate to keep workers, male and female, employed is by cutting hours instead of jobs, at all levels. One by-product could be that the old recessionary patterns that slow women’s progress up career ladders finally fall away. But we’re going to have to work actively and intentionally to make that happen.


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