Last week's job report had some good news for American men: With the latest figures, 1 million more of them have jobs now compared with the beginning of the year.
Yet even so, the male unemployment rate continues to outstrip that for American women by nearly two percentage points.
The "mancession," as some pundits have dubbed it, has been one of the more striking features of the recent downturn. While nearly all groups have seen the ranks of their unemployed swell, men have fared far worse than women. In August 2007, adult men and women registered the same unemployment rate -- 4.1 percent. Two years later, the joblessness rate for women had climbed to 7.7 percent, while the male rate soared to 10.2 percent.
The most obvious reason: Sectors that disproportionately employ males have hemorrhaged jobs. The manufacturing sector, which is more than 70 percent male, lost 16.5 percent of its total workforce. In construction firms, just one woman holds a position for roughly every seven men, and in this real-estate driven recession, construction shed a quarter of its workforce. By contrast, female-dominated sectors such as education and health care added jobs over the same period.
"There's still just a lot of gender segregation in the workforce," said Joyce Jacobsen, a labor economist at Wesleyan University. "Men seem to be in these more volatile-type jobs."
Despite the recent attention, this type of gender gap is nothing new. Since the early 1980s, American recessions have featured a steeper rise in joblessness for males than for females, with manufacturing and housing shedding jobs first.
This time, it is the severity of the gulf that has drawn notice. Previous slumps have seen gaps no wider than a percentage point. Last summer's gender chasm registered as high as 2.7 percent.
That has narrowed recently, largely because the jobs that are returning are going disproportionately to men -- "exactly what you expect if after a recession the jobs that come back are roughly the ones that left," said Heidi Shierholz, who studies labor markets at the Economic Policy Institute. While a million men have gained jobs, female employment has declined since the year began. That also reflects cutbacks in state and local governments, which not only disproportionately employ women but also provide services such as after-school care that can enable women to take jobs, said Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress.
The divide has prompted debate over whether there might be a more long-term explanation. If jobs eventually return in manufacturing and construction, the gap would presumably close. But what if some manufacturing jobs don't come back, or don't return for long?
Mark Perry, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points to possible sectoral shifts in the economy, and to the fact that women now outnumber men in college, as indications that future recessions will also be "mancessions."
"If we are talking about this continuing and increasing college degree gap, that would shift in favor of women being better prepared for the knowledge-based economy and being in positions that are more resistant to a downturn," Perry said. The unemployment rate last month for people 25 and over without a high school diploma was 14 percent. Those having college and graduate degrees had just 4.6 percent unemployment.
Still, the severity of the gender gap could simply reflect the unique nature of the downturn. "They're not all going to be led by financial crashes, real estate crashes, and construction crashes," said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
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