WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Larger numbers of women face strained finances during the ongoing recession, but one of their leading advocates sees some consolation in federal laws and efforts to improve their economic opportunities.

"You’ve had actual gains in the last six to nine months, which is remarkable given the circumstances," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, a women’s advocacy group based in Arlington, Va.

One of those gains is a first-time gender analysis of jobs created by federal stimulus programs.

"That’s a big deal because if you can measure something, then it exists," said Smeal, who is also the publisher of Ms. Magazine, based in Los Angeles.

Smeal noted that other Western governments routinely analyze the gender effects of their annual budgets.

Christina Romer, then-nominee to chair the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, and Jared Bernstein, economic policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, conducted the first such analysis in January of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion stimulus law.

That initial analysis concluded that about 42 percent of the jobs funded through the stimulus would be filled by women, who had held about 20 percent of the jobs lost at that point in the recession.

More ‘Female-Centric’ Jobs

The analysis led congressional negotiators to amend the measure in February to increase the number of "female-centric" stimulus jobs in fields such as social services, education and nursing.

No follow-up gender analysis has been conducted, but billions of dollars were added to female-majority job sectors during congressional negotiations.

Another Obama-supported initiative would provide help to working women with young and school-age children. The proposal, found in his 2010 budget, is to fund several new early childhood support initiatives, including Title I Early Childhood Grants and competitive Early Learning Challenge Grants. Those programs are part of appropriations bills pending in Congress.

These recent measures to improve women’s economic opportunities join the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Obama signed in January. The act removed the 180-day limit that a 2007 Supreme Court decision set for workers to file pay-discrimination lawsuits.

Another bill to help working women is the Paycheck Fairness Act (S 182), which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sponsored before she left the Senate to join the administration. Among other things, it would prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discussed their salaries–the first step in discovering a pay disparity.

Smeal described the paycheck bill as a modest measure that is expected to advance later in this Congress.

Congress also may finish work on the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act by the end of the year. Passed by the House in June, the bill would provide a month of paid maternity or paternity leave to the federal government’s 1.8 million employees.

‘Gain Is a Gain’

Although such a measure falls short of a national change in law, the federal government’s positive experience with paid leave for new parents may convince employers that the added benefit would be an overall gain for them.

"A gain is a gain," Smeal said. "You take what you can get and run."

Another bill waits more tentatively in the wings: the Healthy Families Act (HR 2460), sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. Stalled since it was introduced in May, it would require every employer to pay sick leave of up to seven days. Data compiled by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, based in Washington, D.C., found that 40 percent of working women–more than 22 million women–have no paid sick leave.

On Oct. 20, Ms. Magazine published "Paycheck Feminism," by Karen Kornbluh and Rachel Homer, which enumerates the economic reforms Smeal regards as unfinished business.

The article calls for changes in Social Security, health insurance, family and medical leave, child care and payroll taxes. The article, now available online, will appear in the Nov. 3 issue of the magazine.

The unemployment rate for women who head households reached 10 percent by May, according to an analysis by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. The report did not provide the unemployment rate for men who head households.

By October, the unemployment rate for all men was 11 percent and 8.4 percent for all women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rich Daly is a writer in Washington D.C.

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