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Biden’s climate plan will not address gender and racial inequality

Women and minorities have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic recession and must be part of any comprehensive recovery program. 

The Biden administration’s quest to green the American economy promises to create millions of good jobs “filled by diverse, local and well-trained workers, including women and people of color.” But these jobs will exacerbate long-standing and worsening economic injustices due to their concentration in male-dominated fields. 

Due to COVID-19, gender disparities in unpaid care work have more than tripled (sextupled for Black and Hispanic women) and women have experienced job losses at a higher rate than men for the first time in history. Non-whites have simultaneously suffered significantly higher pandemic mortality rates and lower resilience in the face of recession due to systemically weaker pre-pandemic economic positions. The interaction of these realities has undermined the economic stability of women of color, in particular. 

To tackle these injustices, the Biden administration should adopt a broader “green-plus” recovery that prioritizes inherently low-carbon jobs in the care, education and service sectors, in addition to the valuable unpaid labor overlooked in conventional measures of economic wellbeing.

Green infrastructure stimulus spending alone won’t address economic inequalities 

Traditional climate infrastructure investments like those cited in Biden’s plan, rest in overwhelmingly male-dominated industries, with women comprising only 3.5 percent of the construction and extraction workforce and 3.9 percent in installation, maintenance and repair. 

The situation is not much better in “green” sectors like the solar industry, where dependence on networks leads to low diversity. Women represent almost half of the U.S. workforce but only a quarter of its solar workforce, while Blacks are underrepresented by a third relative to the full workforce. Moreover, only 36 percent of solar companies even track diversity. 

An indubitably white male-dominated green infrastructure boom would therefore only exacerbate “she-cession” and racial economic concerns. 

The go-to proposal for remedying said inequalities — including Biden’s proposed apprenticeship program — focuses on improving diversity and inclusion in male-dominated sectors to reduce extreme biases in hiring across the economy.

Recent industry pledges and efforts to alter policies and practices around hiring, salaries, culture and family leave are an important start. But these efforts may treat the symptoms rather than the underlying disease. Evidence from medicine suggests that attracting more women to a given field can reduce its average wage. That is, the gender wage gap may not solely follow from excluding women from more highly paid fields, but rather that female-dominated jobs are paid less because they are held by women. 

Increasing the proportion of women in male-dominated industries is not, on its own, sufficient to increase their economic status. Additional efforts must focus on raising pay in traditionally female- and minority-held jobs. 

A “green-plus” way forward on climate and equality

Reversing the pandemic’s outsized impacts on women and minorities requires a multi-pronged approach that can simultaneously address economic inequalities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

First, the Biden administration should expand the federal government’s working definition of green jobs to include low-carbon jobs that produce a “double dividend” in non-climate policy priority areas. This strategy approaches the problem from a new direction: instead of channeling historically disadvantaged workers to better-paid sectors, increase wages in underpaid jobs in education and direct care that by their nature contribute significant value to the economy with a negligible carbon footprint. Boosting recruitment and retention for the more than 10 million jobs in these sectors — through improved compensation, benefits, education, training and recognition — contribute toward leveling the playing field for those hardest hit by the pandemic.

Take direct care workers who help older adults and people with disabilities perform daily tasks. They provide a vital function — particularly in a global pandemic — that will grow as we face a respective doubling and tripling of the populations aged 65 plus  and 85 plus between 2015 and 2060. Yet, quality of direct care employment creates massive turnover, while low wages leave 42 percent of these workers in need of public assistance. Simultaneously, nine of 10 direct care employees are women, with six of 10 occupied by people of color. Policies to improve direct care work would have the added benefit of attenuating unpaid care hours.

Second, the Biden administration should invest in a circular economy, reducing emissions while increasing employment opportunities in the women- and minority-dominated service sector. A circular economy is designed to be regenerative. Its three principles — designing out waste and pollution, keeping products in use to retain embodied energy, and regenerating natural systems to store carbon — could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions up to 20 percent. Women, Blacks and Hispanics are well-positioned to benefit from these increased employment levels given their overrepresentation in service occupations. 

Finally, the administration should think critically about how to recognize unpaid labor. Estimates show that the value of this heavily female-dominated labor is sizable, worth 20 to 40 percent of U.S. GDP. Progressive proposals that have entered the policy discussion, such as universal basic income (supplemented with other inequality-reducing policies) or considering alternatives to GDP as a primary measure of wellbeing, can help recognize and alleviate the burdens associated with unpaid care work and improve environmental outcomes. For instance, universal basic income may open doors for women of color trapped in low-paid jobs out of necessity to seek alternative employment, improving economic equality without stigmatization

Biden’s plans to mitigate climate change will exacerbate economic injustices whose hard-fought progress has been reversed by COVID-19 — unless they adopt “green-plus” tenets. Looking beyond the green infrastructure lens illuminates approaches that advance climate goals and economic equality, and lessons can be found in growing movements focused on environmental justice and feminist climate solutions

A “green-plus” economic recovery should channel significant funding toward the inherently low-carbon care and service sectors, thereby additionally addressing increasingly crucial non-climate policy concerns such as better care for society’s most vulnerable, equal pay, inequities in unpaid work, and the transition to a circular economy. A just and sustainable future depends on it.

Greer Gosnell, Ph.D, is a social science researcher at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, and a visiting fellow at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Sara Hastings-Simon, Ph.D, is a macro energy systems researcher at the Payne Institute, and a research fellow at the School for Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

Civil Rights