The economists and policy wonks at ABC’s creative department have found a novel solution to the jobs crisis and, lucky for us, it comes in the form of a sitcom. Promoted as a “high-concept” comedy, “Work It!” is set to premier mid-season in January 2012, and the inspiration behind the show is best described by the network itself:
With unemployment an ongoing issue and women now outnumbering men in the workforce, the new comedy series “Work It” follows two alpha males who realize the only way to beat the current “mancession” and land a job in pharmaceutical sales is to pass themselves off as women.
Notable lines from the preview include a saccharine-voiced sales rep announcing, “We’re kind of just looking for girls,” and a desperate, skirt wearing man bemoaning the fact that “this is what I had to do to get a job!”
Hardly cutting edge comedy, “Work It!” comes across more than anything as an outdated take on “Bosom Buddies.” But we should not simply join in on the collective eye roll dismissing the show. Yes, “Work It!” may prove to be an instant flop, but the way it mangles the facts about our economic downturn is telling. Ridiculous as it is, the show is premised on a widespread misunderstanding about the relative status of men and women in the workforce today.
THERE IS A REASON THAT the term “mancession” gained currency during the economic crisis. According to the data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, between December 2007 and June 2009—the official timeframe of the Great Recession—jobs held by men made up approximately 70 percent of all jobs lost. This skewed figure can be explained by the fact that many male-dominated fields, like construction and car manufacturing, were hit the hardest.
But women weren’t spared the traumas of the recession: After all, it wasn’t just auto factories that were shedding jobs. In fact, according to Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, women suffered a disproportionate number of layoffs across most industries. “On more than one occasion, there was a sense that people wanted me, particularly as a woman economist, to say that [the recession] would have a silver lining for women,” Sheirholz told me. “But I just kept on getting back to the fact that women are getting slammed [too].”
And whatever “Work It!” suggests to the contrary, women still don’t outnumber men in the workplace. They currently account for 49.4 percent of the payrolled workforce, up from approximately 45 percent before the recession hit, and these numbers only account for the salaried, civilian, and non-farm working population. This means that if farm workers, members of the military, and those who are self-employed—all three of which Jeffrey Hayes, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), characterizes as male-dominated fields—were brought into the equation, the percentage of women in the workforce would almost definitely be lower.
Moreover, if the recession was harder on men, statistics show that women have fared far worse during our prolonged recovery. A Pew Research study found that while men gained 786,000 jobs between June 2009 and May 2011, women lost 218,000. And in contrast to the Great Recession, when both men and women lost jobs in absolute terms, the study noted that this recovery period “is the first since 1970 in which women have lost jobs even as men have gained them.” Of the 1.6 million jobs added to payrolls between November 2010 and November 2011, the IWPR estimates that 30 percent were filled by women while 70 percent were filled by men. “Everyone was throwing around the term ‘mancesssion,’ but ‘he-covery’ never really caught on,” Hayes says.
The research community, meanwhile, is “scratching [its] collective head,” says Hayes, as to the reason behind men gaining jobs at a higher rate than women even in categories like business services, which is rarely viewed as dominated by any one gender. “We don’t have the data to prove this, but it’s almost as if we have gone back to the model that if a job has opened up, it should go to a man who has a family to support,” Hayes says. “Man suffered, and thus we should repay him.”
The premise of “Work It!”, in other words, has it completely backwards. Not only does it reflect popular misconceptions about gender’s role in the economy, it makes it that much more difficult to correct them. “What we risk is the idea that everything is okay and [equality for women in the workplace] isn’t an issue anymore, that we don't have to worry about discrimination,” says Ariane Hegewisch, the study director at the IWPR. Indeed, a 2005 Gallup poll showed that, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans reported they believed that men and women enjoyed equal opportunities in the workforce—in spite of the fact that real parity still hasn’t been achieved.
Women remain underrepresented in senior posts in law, business, academia, and politics, according to a 2009 White House report. Furthermore, women still earn only 77 cents to a man’s dollar (and even less if they are members of ethnic minority groups). Presumably, this pay gap would have shrunk during the recession had women indeed been faring better than their male counterparts.
The greatest irony of all, meanwhile, is that pharmaceutical companies—the setting in which “Work It!” takes place—have been a hotbed for sexual discrimination lawsuits in recent years. This May, Novartis Pharmaceuticals had to pay $250 million in punitive damages to 5,600 female sales representatives nationwide in the largest gender discrimination case ever to go to verdict.
Katherine Kimpel, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, is currently helming a similar case against Bayer; she says she felt torn when watching the show’s trailer. “No one wants to be a killjoy or be PC just to be PC,” Kimpel told me, “but it appears that the show’s humor is going to be derived from reinforcing the stereotype of women using their sexuality as being their mode of getting and doing their job. If these guys are able to get a job by slapping on a pair of fake boobs, it says they don’t need x and y skills.” While Kimpel doesn’t think it’s a comedy writer’s obligation to serve as a public service announcer, she believes that the show is living in a fantasy world when it comes to today’s workplace dynamics for women. “The glass ceiling might seem ’80s and outdated,” she notes, “but it is very real and very strong.”
Of course, if the show fails, it’s likely to be because its humor falls flat: Jokes about how guys prefer hoagies and chicks dig salads aren’t really jokes at all—they’re gestures at tired clichés. But in that way, both the writing and the economic analysis of “Work It!” share the same fatal flaw: an utter lack of curiosity about the actual lives of men and women.
Laura Stampler is a writer living in New York.