Why the jobless gender gap persists

October 8, 2010: 12:52 PM ET

The latest unemployment report shows that women continue to maintain a more stable unemployment rate than men. As the economy recovers, they may continue to dominate.

It's no secret that women fared better than men during the latest recession. More men found themselves unemployed than women as male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing shed far more jobs than areas like education and health care, which typically employ more women.

And as the latest jobless report released today shows, the unemployment gender gap continues through the economic recovery. Though it has narrowed some since its peak in August 2009, the gap persists -- unemployment among men hovers near 10% versus 8% for women.

The overall jobless rate for September was unchanged from August at 9.6%, underscoring concerns from some Federal Reserve policymakers that the economic rebound has been moving much too slow and may need an extra jolt through easier monetary policy. The economy lost 95,000 non-farm jobs, driven mostly by layoffs in local governments and of temporary Census workers.

The financial strains of the so-called "Mancession" have pushed more women who previously took time off from their careers to search for jobs. It's a development that's been hard for economists to quantify, but recent studies and anecdotes offer a snapshot.

The number of professional women who want to take a period of time off from work dropped from 37% to 31% between 2004 and 2009, according to a Center for Work-Life Policy 2009 study. The New York City-based think tank, which researches workplace trends and policies, found that women increasingly can't afford to take time off. What's more, the number of professional women with husbands either unemployed or retired surged 28% between 2004 and 2009.

"There is more of an economic need for them to go back into the workforce," says Karen Sumberg, the center's vice president.

The retail benefit

Ann Taylor (ANN) CEO Kay Krill noticed the trend from reviewing sales during the past year. Krill believes the influx of women trying to return to the workplace could be a factor driving the increase in sales. Ann Taylor, which also owns the lower-priced and more casual Loft chain, swung to profit during the first quarter. Sales rose to $476.2 million from $426.7 million, while sales at stores open at least a year gained 14%. During the second quarter, overall sales rose 2.8% to $483.5 million and comparable store sales jumped 6%, driven by demand for suits and dresses.

At the University of California Hastings College of Law's Center for WorkLife Law, there's been a considerable uptick in female lawyers wanting to return to practice after taking time off. Joan Williams, director of the center, says the center's opt-back program, which helps women return to law firms, is in high demand.

"We were startled by all the women who were coming in," Williams recalls. "Many women are joining the program either because their husbands were laid off or they were frightened that their husbands would be laid off."

Even while household finances have added pressures on women to return to work, it hasn't necessarily been easy for them to land jobs. The Center for Work-Life Policy found that women now "off-ramp," or take time off from work, for a slightly longer period of time – 2.7 years on average in 2009 versus 2.2 years in 2004 due to the weak economy. Also, getting back into the workplace has been more challenging, as 20% of women who are currently trying to return to work said they are having trouble doing so.

The employment landscape is generally tough for both sexes, but The Atlantic's Daniel Indiviglio points that men will probably have a harder time finding jobs during the recovery than women mostly because of the industries each tends to dominate. "Construction, in particular, will likely be a major struggle, while education and health services should endure," Indiviglio writes, expanding on the Federal Reserve's February 2010 report that revealed men fared much worse than women during the recession as male-dominated industries were harder hit.

This might very well be true, but today's jobs report shows both sexes could be equally in for tough times. Senior Economist Heather Boushey at American Progress, a Washington DC-based policy research and advocacy organization, says huge government debts that have compelled local, states and federal governments to shed jobs could be particularly harsh for women. Prior to the recession, women held more than half of government jobs, making up 61.4% of local positions and 57% of local, state and federal spots, Boushey notes.

"The reality is that families need women in the workforce because men lost so many jobs," Boushey says. "But it's not enough to want a job. It's a very sad game of musical chairs for both men and women, where there is one chair and five people. When the music stops, only one person will have a seat."

See also:

How companies can fill the skilled worker gap -- start training them again!

Stocks sag ahead of monthly jobs report

David Rubenstein: U.S. is losing its competitive edge

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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