Friday, January 16, 2015

Women, Jobs, and the Great Recession

Lately, a number of my Work’s New Age blog posts and WORK SHIFT radio episodes have focused on the problems faced by men in getting employment.  Women, though, have hardly got off freely, despite having lost only 25% of jobs that disappeared in 2008 through 2010.  What else can we say about how they have fared?

First, although men’s official seasonally adjusted unemployment was far worse at the end of the Great Recession – for example, 10.2% in January 2010 compared with 7.9% for women – the sexes were much closer before and after.  During 2004, about 5.0% of men were jobless, compared with 4.8% of women.  By 2007, the difference was the same, 4.2% and 4.0%.  In August 2008 the gap went up to 5.7% against 5.0% and it remained high, until in 2011 men’s unemployment dropped almost month-by-month and women’s stayed about the same to reach 8.0% and 7.8% in December.  Since then, more jobs have been added, and the difference between the sexes has continued to be small; at the end of 2014, 5.3% of men were officially jobless compared with 5.0% of women, a gap actually wider than most recent months.  That means that we are not moving, as some analysts have feared, toward huge employment gender gaps.

Second, when measured by the total number of jobs, men have done much worse.  In January of 2007, men had about 4.7 million more than women, 70.9 million to 66.2 million.  Early in 2008, men’s jobs, even in absolute numbers, began to go away, when women’s were still rising – in the first half of 2009, men were losing over 400,000 net positions per month, compared with women’s 200,000.  By January 2010, the sexes were about even, at just over 64,600,000 apiece.  Afterwards they started to diverge, but even by the end of 2012 they were much closer than they had been before the recession, with about 1.7 million more for men.  The difference between unemployment rates, which include only those actively looking, and the number of jobs confirms that more men than women, indeed, have left the workforce. 

Third, per a detailed New York Times look at sets of 147 25 to 54-year-old men and women not employed, there are some real differences between the things they do.  Women spent much less time watching TV and movies and at other entertainment, and much more doing housework and caring for others.  Men put more hours toward education, and toward looking for their next employment opportunities.

Fourth, the reactions of men and women to being out of work were even more different.  As shown in a December 15th New York Times article, men had more interest in getting hired again and more willingness to take long commutes, but were less likely to accept low-paying positions.  Personally, men were more like fish out of water, with 41% and 43% reporting worse physical and mental health against 16% and 19% respectively seeing improvement, compared with women claiming 25% better and 29% worse mental health and, per the article, “almost no difference” physically.  Sixty percent of women said that being out of work had improved relations with their children, but only 22% of men agreed.

Fifth, another December Times piece, “Why U.S. Women Are Leaving Jobs Behind,” made the case that more mothers could return to the workforce if they were accommodated with longer mandated maternity leave, more flexible work times, more telecommuting, and government-subsidized child care.  That brings up the problem of whether, when not only men but many women without children are also out of work, a lot of money and laws should go for things that cost jobs.  That is not sexist but practical, especially if women with children are likely to do generally better with unemployment.  Perhaps that is unfair, but hard public policy choices are made all the time.

Overall and once again, the jobs crisis may affect different sets of people in different ways, but it is ultimately an equal-opportunity transition.  That women tend to do better personally and organizationally does not mean they wouldn’t rather be working.  That is the key to understanding what is happening with employment now – it is not the official jobless rate that shows the trouble we are in, but the number of people, not totally by choice, on the sidelines.  Only when we understand that will we be poised for the progress we need.

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