Bernadette Collins was 24 and a newlywed when her husband, a steelworker, was laid off from his job in 1982.
The Bridgeville woman had married the boy next door and they moved in to the house next to her parents. At the time, she had just one semester to finish before receiving her associate's degree from Penn State McKeesport. She finished her degree, then did what thousands of women in Pittsburgh did -- she went to work.
The women who joined the labor force during the era following the collapse of region's steel and industrial foundation would in turn become the foundation of the region's economic restructuring.
A TIDE OF CHANGE
Fifth in a series on how our economy has transformed since bottoming out a generation ago.
Our regional economy barely resembles the one from 30 years ago. A full generation has passed since January 1983, when the southwestern Pennsylvania economy was at its nadir and unemployment was at its all-time peak.
Today: What's the single biggest difference between the region's workforce today and our workforce from a generation ago? In a word: women.
Friday: In the 1980s, investing in technology didn't seem like a way to replace the region's lost jobs. Also, a Latrobe family practice sees a future in an old-fashioned medical care model even as the industry has changed.
Saturday: Of the top 25 retail banks in the seven-county Pittsburgh region in the 1980s, just nine are in business today. Although they survived the 1983 collapse, they couldn't survive regulatory changes and the most recent financial meltdown.
That's the story that A.J. Drexler, lead strategist for Big Picture Communications, started researching during the lead up to the G-20 meeting in 2009. What she found was that historically women had lower participation rates in the region's labor market than they did in the rest of the country, but many stepped up to bring their families and Pittsburgh out of economic despair in that difficult time.
Since writing a Forum article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ms. Drexler has been telling the story of women's role in the economic revival of the city. "This is just a huge story that has to be told," she said.
During the years that the crown jewel of Pittsburgh's economy was made of steel, the best money in town was found in the mills. Unlike the auto industry in other Rust Belt cities, or other factory-style jobs, steel was essentially closed to women.
So while the boys left high school and went to work in the mills, girls went on to further education as nurses, teachers and into clerical and financial work.
Thirty years later, medicine, education and financial services are the industries that diversified Pittsburgh's economy in part because an educated workforce of women here were ready to go.
Ms. Drexler points out that between 1971 and 2000, 40,000 jobs held by men were lost in Allegheny County alone. During that same period, 55,000 women entered the workforce.
She said there was no big social movement. No riots or demonstrations that brought about the change.
Instead, quietly, as their husbands lost their jobs, those wives and mothers who didn't leave town got on street cars and buses and went to work in the industries for which they had been educated, providing the workforce for schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and banks. Many of the younger women in that cohort followed the lead of their mothers, becoming lawyers, professors and earning masters in business administration.
Pittsburgh is part of a national trend of a higher percentage of women working while the percentage of men in the labor force is shrinking.
In 1980, 79.4 percent of men over the age of 20 were in the labor force, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At that time, 51.3 percent of women over 20 were participating in the workforce.
Over the ensuing decades, the participation rate has fallen for men, but risen for women. As of last month, 72.8 percent of men over 20 were in the workforce nationwide compared to 59.2 percent of women.
The trend is even more pronounced in Pittsburgh.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2007 there were more women working in Pittsburgh than men. Women also edged out men in terms of labor force participation rate, with just over half of all women working and less than half of all men.
Stefani Pashman, chief executive officer of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, said that while it is great that women have the opportunities to enter the workforce, there is still a huge wage gap here.
A paper on the wage disparity published by Sabina Dietrick, a University of Pittsburgh economics professor, and her colleague Christopher Briem shows that in 2000 women earned between 75 percent and 71 percent of the earnings of male workers, depending on education. Their research has been written about extensively in the Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly.
The disparity was more pronounced among highly educated women, who earned 71 percent what their male counterparts did. High school graduates without further schooling saw less difference, with the women earning 75 percent of the salaries of the men with the same education.
Ms. Deitrick and Mr. Briem showed part of the disparity was that women were employed in industries that paid less.
Even when they are in the same industries, the men and women often have very different jobs.
Data from the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board shows that healthcare and social assistance make up the largest single industry sector employing women in the region, with 147,000 jobs held by women in 2010, while men held 43,000 jobs in that sector. That same year women averaged $2,986 a month in wages, men's wages in the sector were $5,281 a month, or 56 cents for every dollar the men made.
"Obviously, the wage disparity is really disturbing," Ms. Pashman said.
Back when steel collapsed, Mrs. Collins -- the newlywed whose husband was laid off -- was less worried about wage equality than about getting a job. She studied to be a paralegal at a time when most of the women in law firms were legal secretaries. After working all day, she came home to change before going back to school at Duquesne.
There were afternoons when she said she came home to find her husband sitting around the table drinking beer and playing Risk with his out-of-work buddies. Their marriage dissolved after he tried college, but did not like it.
Other households stayed together with the women continuing to work, even after their husbands went back to work, because few jobs paid as well as the steel mills had, and two salaries were now needed to get by.
Mrs. Collins said she ran into two barriers -- first, convincing members of the Pittsburgh bar that paralegals were worth the money and, second, convincing them a woman could be a paralegal, not just a secretary. She put together a presentation about how much money they could make when she did the work instead of a lawyer.
By the time she finished her degree, she was making more than she would as a teacher, but still taking home just a fifth of the amount that her employer was billing clients for her time. So she started her own business freelancing for smaller firms.
Now, after a remarriage and taking a break from the workforce to have a daughter, she is back at work as a financial services representative for MetLife.
Ann Belser: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699. First Published December 27, 2012 5:00 AM