The economic recovery has looked at times like a battle of the sexes.
In November, 67.8 million women were working in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 122,000 fewer than at the peak of the expansion, which officially tipped into recession in December 2007. Women are likely to make up that gap in the next few months. They actually did in August, according to the BLS’ household survey, but subsequent surveys were lower.
Men, however, have a ways to go to make up the ground they lost during the downturn. They remain 1.8 million jobs short of their previous high of 76.5 million. The unemployment rate for men stands at 7.3 percent, versus 6.7 percent for women.
Of course, neither men nor women are approaching a full recovery in the jobs market. The United States is still 8 million jobs short of returning to the pre-crisis trend, according to projections from the Hamilton Project, a liberal research group.
The differing fates of male and female Americans following the financial crisis have prompted creative terms from market watchers. By the time men had lost 5.7 million jobs in 2010, it was a “mancession.” And with women nearing their previous employment high-water mark, there was talk of a “she-covery.”
But more than a gender story, the labor recovery’s uneven impact is about some male-heavy industries struggling and female-dominated ones showing resilience over the past few years.
Construction was particularly hard hit after the housing bubble collapsed — nearly 3 million construction jobs are still “missing.”
Another hard-hit sector was manufacturing, which is sensitive to the movements in the business cycle.
Both of those industries are predominantly male. When they were hit hard, men suffered.
Meanwhile, health care and education have proven to be two of the stronger U.S. industries. Before the recovery, more than a third of women worked in those two sectors. Both feature a number of occupations, such as nurse or teacher, that have traditionally been heavily tilted toward women. Together, they enjoyed uninterrupted growth throughout the recession, adding 2.3 million jobs.
Health care, in particular, has had a spectacular run: The sector hasn’t shown a monthly loss since July 2003.
But what the performance of those two sectors means for the U.S. economy is an open question. Both are highly reliant on government spending. And higher employment in the health care and education sectors is a product of rising health care and tuition costs, both of which are major problems in the public eye.
What it doesn’t, mean, however, is that the recession has changed some old stereotypes about gender in the workplace.
Men have been gaining jobs in both health care and education at a faster rate than women, a sign that Americans will go where good-paying jobs are regardless of traditional gender roles.
“I think anyone looking at the economy would think, ‘Gee, if I want a recession-proof job, I should go into health care,’ so, yes, I would expect more men to go into health care,” said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute of Women’s Policy Research.
Hartmann also predicted, however, that gender differences will even out once the economy is strong enough for manufacturing, construction and other male-heavy sectors to return to health. “I kind of expect it to go back to the way it was,” she said.