The great recession: Why are men gaining jobs more quickly than women?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 11 2011 6:06 PM

Where's the Shecovery?

Why men are gaining jobs more quickly than women

Why are women having a more difficult time finding work than men? Click image to expand.
Why are women having a more difficult time finding work than men?

During the job-killing economic contraction of 2007 to 2009, men accounted for about seven in 10 positions eliminated. It was deemed the "mancession." But since the anemic recovery started in June 2009, men have picked up about 768,000 jobs and women have lost a further 218,000, according to a much-discussed Pew study that came out last week. It has turned into a "hecovery."

The overall trend of men losing more jobs then gaining them back faster is by this point old news. Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress, described the phenomenon for Slate back in January. But the Pew report introduces a new wrinkle. Economists do not really know why employment has rebounded for men but not for women.

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Previously, economists described men's disproportionate job loss as a structural phenomenon. Some sectors of the economy, like construction, mining, and manufacturing, employ mostly male workers. Other sectors, like health care and public education, employ mostly female workers. When the economy collapsed in 2008, construction and manufacturing got hit the worst, while health care and education continued to grow. As a result, men bled millions more jobs than women did. Later on, during the recovery, local governments—squeezed by disappearing tax revenues, constrained by balanced-budget requirements, and employing mostly women—needed to make layoffs. That meant that job growth rebounded for men, but not for women.

But the Pew study defies, or at least complicates, the story: It shows that men are gaining jobs not just in sectors like mining and manufacturing, but in all kinds of businesses. Indeed, in 15 out of 16 sectors studied by Pew, men have outpaced women in job growth or lost fewer positions since the recovery started. And the nonpartisan think tank has little idea why: "There is no ready explanation for why employment growth in these sectors has favored men," the study's author, Rakesh Kochhar, writes.

I have a few theories, but first, some important context: Men have had it much worse through the recession overall. According to Pew, men lost 5.4 million jobs and women 2.1 million during the recession. The unemployment rate for men climbed from 5.1 percent to a current 9.5 percent; for women, from 4.9 percent to 8.5 percent. Today, there are 4.6 million fewer men working than in December 2007, and 2.4 million fewer women. In short, measuring job gains or losses from when the recovery started, men are doing a bit better. Measuring job gains or losses from when the recession started, women are a whole lot better off.

Still, the recovery has disproportionately benefited male workers, and not just because of a rebound in the sectors where they tend to work. So what gives? One theory to explain it is that men, facing higher rates of unemployment and feeling more pressed to find work, are being less choosy about accepting positions. Perhaps they are agreeing to wage and benefit cuts. Perhaps they are taking menial positions more readily. Perhaps they are shifting into piecemeal or part-time employment faster (though, by and large, the average duration of unemployment is similar for men and women). Perhaps there is some hiring discrimination going on as well.

A second, related theory is that men are perhaps being more aggressive about applying for and accepting jobs outside of their normal purview. The job changes during the recession were primarily cyclical, in economist-speak: The recession sapped demand throughout the economy, and all kinds of businesses fired workers. But for men, maybe the changes felt more "structural." Believing that construction is not going to turn around anytime soon, maybe all those carpenters became clerical workers, displacing women in turn.

But those are just theories. One thing is for sure: Given last week's horrible June jobs report and the several dismal ones before it, the recovery is barely justifying its name at this point. No sector of the economy is showing the kind of bang-up growth we will need to bring the unemployment rate down. And the picture remains worrying for women, who continue to lose jobs even as the economy slowly, very slowly, gets better. The report notes that this "is the first recovery in which the unemployment rates for men and women have gone in opposite directions—falling for men but rising for women."

Here's to hoping it turns into a shecovery as well, and soon.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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