Is the Great Recession sexist?

Department of Labor

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at the Work Force Initiatives in Pittsburgh, Pa., on June 14, 2012. Sanna Gaspart is demonstrating a device for detecting pressure uclers that her company is commercializing.

Article Highlights

  • Is the Great Recession sexist? If you listen to the #Obama and #Romney campaigns, you’d swear it was.

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  • 552,000 nonfarm payroll jobs have been lost since January 2009 and 73% of those have been from women.

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  • For the first 7 months of the recession, the gap in unemployment rates was only .2% between men and women.

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  • Did women lose their jobs primarily because of cuts in government funding? The facts just don’t support this story.

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Is the Great Recession sexist? If you listen to the Obama and Romney campaigns, you'd swear it was. Republicans are pushing the point that the bad economy has been particularly tough on women. Democrats counter that the downturn began as a "mancession," with job losses among women coming later, and largely due to government cutbacks. It's the latest saga in the ongoing rhetorical one-upmanship in the "war on women." And it's mostly wrong.

About 552,000 nonfarm payroll jobs have been lost since President Obama took office, from January 2009 to the present, and 73 percent of those have been from women — a fact the Republicans and the Romney campaign have tried to take advantage of. But, the president's supporters counter, 7.5 million jobs were lost during the recession, running from December 2007 until June 2009, with women constituting only 28 percent of the lost jobs. This suggests that men were hit first, and that movements in female unemployment lagged behind.

A harder look shows that the real story isn't so simple.

As the nearby chart shows, at the start of the recession men and women had the same rate of unemployment, 4.4 percent. From the December 2007 start of the recession until its official end in June 2009, in nearly every month both the male and female unemployment rates increased. From the fifth month of the recession until the last, both men and women lost nonfarm payroll jobs every month. The recession didn't start with men and then spread to women — for both men and women, unemployment was rising at the beginning of the recession, and continued to rise until the recovery.

Was the early part of the recession a "mancession"? It is true that the male unemployment rate was higher than the female rate over the course of the recession by an average of 1 percentage point. But for the first seven months of the recession, when conventional wisdom holds that men were being hit disproportionately hard, the gap in the unemployment rates was only 0.2 percentage points. Looking at the month-on-month change in nonfarm payrolls shows a similar story — it's the second half of the recession that finds men losing jobs at a much faster rate than women, not the first half. Certainly the early months of the recession were not a mancession.

As the recession continued, the male unemployment rate rose faster than the female rate. The male rate reached its recession-high of 9.9 percent in June 2009, the month when the recession officially ended. The female recession-peak also occurred in the same month, at 7.6 percent. During the recession, the rates started in the same place but finished with the male rate 2.3 percentage points higher because male unemployment grew faster than female unemployment. But a differential growth rate is not the same as differential timing. If the recession was a mancession, it is not because men were hit first and women were hit during the recovery - it is because the male unemployment rate and the male rate of job loss rose faster than the female rates during the course of the recession.

Conventional wisdom holds that women did significantly worse than men in the recovery. We don't see it that way. Both the male and female unemployment rates continued to rise after the recession officially ended. The male rate has declined from its October 2009 peak of 10.5 percent to its April 2012 low of 7.5 percent.

What's the story with women? Their unemployment rate didn't decline nearly as much as the male rate, which does support the view that men have been better off in the recovery. But the situation with women hasn't gotten substantively worse since the end of the recession - it just hasn't gotten much better. The female unemployment rate has been fairly steady during the aftermath of the recession, floating just below 8 percent for most of the recovery, roughly where it was at the end of the recession. And right now the male unemployment rate is actually 0.4 percentage points above the female rate, at 7.8 and 7.4 respectively. With the male unemployment rate above the female rate, it is hard to argue that women are doing substantively worse than men.

Did women lose their jobs primarily because of cuts in government funding? The story repeated in the press says so. But again, the facts just don't support it. Since the beginning of the recession, women have lost 242,000 jobs in government, while losing 228,000 jobs in construction, 691,000 jobs in manufacturing, and 401,000 jobs in the financial sector. If you break employment into production jobs, service jobs, and government jobs, the sector with the fewest female job losses is government. It is true that the number of government jobs held by women is less today than it was in the first month of the recovery, while private-sector jobs have increased in number. But looking over the entire downturn paints a different picture. Over the long haul of the downturn, the problems facing women in the labor market do not stem primarily from the loss of government jobs.

We hate to let the facts interfere with a good story, but sometimes they do. The recession didn't start with men and then spread to women. Movements in female jobs and unemployment have not lagged movements in their male counterparts. The situation for women has not gotten worse during the recovery. And the problems of the female labor market are not primarily driven by government cutbacks.

Both men and women have been badly damaged by the downturn. Our leaders need to focus on helping both men and women - not on arguing over who hurt women the most.

Aparna Mathur is a resident scholar and Michael Strain is a research fellow, both at the American Enterprise Institute.

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