Women’s Employment in Recession and Recovery

Job losses in the recent recession were steeper and more prolonged than in any contraction in the last 60 years.  The economy lost more than 6 percent of payroll jobs at the worst of the contraction compared with 3 percent in the 1981 recession and smaller losses in other downturns.  From December 2007 until the job market hit bottom in February 2010, the economy lost over 8.5 million jobs.  Men suffered the majority of these losses leading some to label it a ‘mancession.’  While job growth since then has been anemic for both men and women, men have recovered a fifth of the jobs they lost, women less than a tenth.

What explains these disparities in the experiences of men and women in both recession and recovery?

Despite progress over the last 30 years, men and women often hold jobs in very different sectors of the economy.  At the onset of the recession, women held almost half of all non-farm payroll jobs, but only 29 percent of jobs in manufacturing and 13 percent of jobs in construction — the two industries hardest hit by the recession.  In contrast, women held three-fourths of the jobs in education and health services.

Even as employment collapsed in the rest of the economy, education and health services added 844.000 jobs, nearly 200,000 of them in home health care and nursing homes.  The expansion of Medicaid spending as workers lost their jobs and their employer-provided health insurance supported jobs in health care.  Women also held 57 percent of all public sector jobs, which added 97,000 jobs.  As a result, while women’s employment declined by 2.7 million, job losses were less severe than for men.

The situation is quite different now that the economy has slowly begun to recover.  Of the jobs created since February 2010, 81 percent have gone to men, 19 percent to women.  Men have gained back 263,000 jobs in manufacturing, and have begun gaining jobs in construction.  Women, in contrast, have continued to lose jobs in both sectors.  In private services, men held 47 percent of jobs at the start of the recession, but accounted for 59 percent of the jobs lost in this sector during the contraction and fully 66 percent of the jobs gained during the recovery.  In education and health services, where men held 23 percent of jobs when the recession began, 37 percent of the additional jobs created in the past 13 months have gone to men.

Thus, women held 53 percent of private-sector jobs at the start of the recession, but account for only a third of those gained since the slow recovery began.  The bigger story, however, is playing out in the public sector.  After holding up well during the economic contraction as private sector jobs were lost, employment in the public sector has defied the recovery and declined by 284,000 jobs through April, all of them at the state and local levels.  Two-thirds of the employment decline in the public sector was due to jobs lost by women, mostly in K-12 education and other local government jobs.

Public sector job declines are set to accelerate.  In 2009, the federal government gave the states nearly $60 billion in fiscal relief as part of the stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) to help local governments avoid job cuts.  These funds have now been spent, and the assault on public sector workers is intensifying.  Teachers have been demonized; and in state after state, governors plan to cut spending on public education in the next fiscal year, which begins in most states on July 1, 2011.  Local governments, facing continued shortfalls in both local tax revenue and state support, plan cuts in services and jobs.  For women, the news is likely to get even worse as the school year ends and pink slips go out.

GDP growth is sputtering, down significantly from 3.1 percent in the last quarter of 2010 to just 1.8 percent in the first quarter of this year, below trend growth — which is bad any time, but especially as the economy is attempting to recover.  Despite today’s gain of 244,000 payroll jobs, the labor market remains weak.  Unemployment increased to 9 percent.  Jobs and growth will drive the 2012 elections and on this front the news is not good for President Obama and the Democrats.  Maintaining the deafening silence on job creation is likely to cost the President’s party — and the country — dearly.

Eileen Appelbaum is a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  This article was first published in AlterNet on 10 May 2011 and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.

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