Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
July 7, 2014
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Post-recession jobs numbers are better for women than for men

Women now make up larger portion of the work force

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation has snapped back to its pre-recession self in terms of total employment, according to job numbers released last week.

Now there’s about 138,780,000 jobs filled in the country, the number the United States had when the recession began back in December 2007.

But a curious thing has happened: Men now fill fewer positions than they did before the recession.

To put it another way, although men still occupy more jobs than women overall, today women make up a larger portion of the workforce than they did before the economic downturn. At the start of the recession men held 3.2 million more jobs than women, but that gap has narrowed with men holding 1.6 million more jobs than women.

And the reason for this, oddly enough, is largely based on traditional gender roles.

“This phenomenon is due to job segregation in the labor market by gender. Half of women and men tend to be in jobs dominated by their gender,” said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy. “At the beginning, this recession was a man-cession – they lost more jobs rapidly.”

According to an IWPP analysis of recent Bureau of Labor Statistics employment numbers, men are still about 582,000 jobs short of their pre-recession peak. Women on the other hand, hit their pre-recession levels in September of last year.

The jobs traditionally occupied by women simply weren’t hurt as much by the economy as the jobs typically occupied by men, according to Hartmann.

“One of the sectors that’s very strong for women is health care — for women it was part of the reason why their unemployment never fell as much as men, there was always something going on good for them. Health care and private education,” she said.

Hartmann says that the Affordable Care Act rollout also helped women keep their jobs in health care because the new law resulted in an influx of money into that field.

In contrast, roles typically occupied by men, such as construction and manufacturing, tanked when the private sector had to cut costs when consumers stopped buying.

Those sectors still are two of the hardest hit.

Some believe the BLS numbers may be signaling a permanent shift of the economy that favors women.

“The recession is over-laid with long-term trends,” Donald Parsons, an economics professor at George Washington University, said. “Women had disproportionately high unemployment rates 50 years ago and that was largely because they had more temporary jobs. … So there’s been a long-term trend converging from women having largely high unemployment rates to more or less equality.”

Parsons has an additional theory for why women may continue to occupy employment roles with more stability: education.

It’s no secret that women continue to outpace men in college — both in the number of women accepted into colleges and the number of women who graduate with degrees. According to a 2014 BLS study, 32 percent of 27-year-old women had received a bachelor’s degree, compared with 24 percent of men.

“There is a disproportionally lower unemployment rate the higher up you go in education categories,” he said. “The economy is cruel to the less educated and women are becoming a larger and larger chunk of the educated class.”

Yet, there is optimism that men’s job numbers will eventually catch up to previous levels as the real estate market picks up and other employment sectors, like services, increase.

But Hartmann thinks it’s too early to draw conclusions.

“It’s still too soon to tell how much construction and manufacturing it will take to restore men’s small numeric edge,” she said. “We’re still waiting to see how those traditional sectors where men work will fully or completely recover.”