The She-covery that Wasn't

AP Photo

When the government shutdown ends and September’s jobs report is released (it was supposed to appear last Friday), careful readers will notice that women are holding a number of jobs either at or just above their all-time high (which came in early 2008), while men are still millions short of their own pre-crash milestone. Hailing a successful she-covery, however, obscures the fact that women still face an elevated unemployment rate and that the barriers that kept that them from earning as much as men before the recession are still in place. Women are millions of jobs short of where they would be if the economy was at its full potential. Many of the new jobs they have are low-paying. The main causes of the pay gap, like gender segregation in the labor market, have not gone away. That women are gaining jobs is a good thing, but policymakers should not be convinced their work is over.


Even though women hold about as many jobs now as they did before the crash, unemployment is one-and-half times higher than it was before. How can the number of jobs be the same while the jobless rate is higher? Because the population has increased, there are more women looking for work than there were a few years ago.

In fact, even more women would be scanning the want ads if the economy were in better shape. If the number of jobs had kept up with growth in the potential labor force—that is, the share of all women who would be employed or looking for work if the economy were stronger—we would have 3.7 million more jobs for women than we currently do, estimates Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “We're still millions of jobs in the hole because we should always be growing,” she says.

Of the jobs that are slowly accumulating, most are in the private sector. Hundreds of thousands could come from the government, especially state and local governments, where, during the downturn, positions were lost in unprecedented numbers. Between 1989 and 2007, there were almost always 7.3 public-sector workers for every 100 people in the United States, according to an EPI analysis, but today the figure is 6.9—a 0.4 difference that represents 1.3 million fewer jobs total for both genders. Those are jobs held disproportionately by women—around 57 percent in every year since 2007 and about 60 percent in state and local positions, jobs that have taken an unusually long time to return following the financial crash. Shierholz says that as the economy recovers and tax revenues rise, public-sector jobs should also come back, though she cautions that political considerations—especially in states with conservative legislatures—could further delay their return.


A significant amount of new work for women is in low-wage occupations. According to research from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), 60 percent of women’s job gains from 2009 to 2012 were in occupations that pay, on average, less than $10.10 an hour. Cashiers, waitresses, and home health aides are among the "booming" professions—jobs in which women have traditionally been majorities. While those gains translate to an increase of roughly 800,000 women in low-paying fields, the share of all employed women in those jobs is only slightly larger now than it was before the downturn. Still, the growth of low-wage jobs worries Joan Entmacher, vice president of the NWLC. “Women were a majority in these low-wage jobs before the recession, but this is really an acceleration of this trend,” she says. “There also has been quite a high number of part-time jobs in those new employment figures,” adds Ariane Hegewisch at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). “Those jobs often do not really pay a living wage.”

The loss of government jobs may also have forced women from the public sector to the private sector, where pay equity and benefits tend to be worse. A permanent loss of government jobs would weaken an institution that has historically been committed to gender equality. For more than two decades, the majority of public-sector workers have been women, with their share trending upward over the same period.


The gender pay gap has not budged much since the crash. Women who work full-time still earn 77 cents for a man’s dollar—a ratio that’s been roughly the same since the early 2000s. The main contributors to the gender gap are structural factors, like gender segregation in the labor market, the fact that mothers tend to be the primary caregivers for children, and lower rates of promotion for women.

At all levels of qualifications, significant shares of workers are in jobs where 75 percent or more of their co-workers are of the same gender. At each of these qualification-levels, female-dominated jobs pay much less than those worked mainly by men (women earn 74 cents of a man’s dollar in low-skill jobs, 80 cents in middle-skill jobs, and 67 cents in high-skill jobs), and low- and middle-skill jobs are especially gender-segregated. Segregation has proved difficult to erase. “The … integration of occupations has kind of slowed down since the late 1990s,” Hegewisch says.

Most people who interrupt their careers to care for children are women, and these workers often receive lower wages when they return to work, contributing to the gender pay gap, according to research from U.C. Berkeley’s Labor Center. When affordable child care is available, women are less likely to take time off work and to be hit with lower pay as a result, according to research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In that study, the authors found that the pay gap tends to be smaller in countries with higher child-care enrollment rates.

Many other factors contribute to the pay gap, such as the fact that women are less likely to be promoted than men, that social pressure discourages women from enrolling in higher-paying but male-dominated fields, and that sometimes even outright discrimination prevents them from getting a job. “There really is a quite a lot of harassment and fairly direct ways of trying to keep women out,” says Hegewisch of male-dominated occupations like firefighters or electricians. These factors do not appear to have changed in a significant way since the recession began.


To create more and better jobs for women and men, Shierholz argues that the government should boost demand through stimulus spending, such as making investments in infrastructure. Stronger demand would cause people to buy more goods and companies to hire more people. That would not only lower the unemployment rate but also eliminate some poorly paid work. “There's always somebody who wants to hire people … at a very low quality job,” Shierholz says. “When job opportunities are strong, workers don't have to take those jobs.” As the recovery continues, states can also use their increased revenues to rehire some of the women who lost their public-sector positions during the downturn.

Workforce investment can narrow the wage gap, Hegewisch says. The federal government could provide more information and training for women who want to work in male-dominated fields, like plumbing or high-end retail. “A lot of the individual interviews we've done, people say, ‘It just never occurred to me that I could do that work,’” she says. Women seeking these jobs should contact—if one is available—local organizations like Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York City, which trains women for jobs in construction and maintenance.

Paid family leave—for mothers and fathers—and subsidies for child care would help women stay at work after they give birth, reducing the pay gap. Several states are experimenting with policies along these lines—paid paternity leave in California, high-quality pre-kindergarten in Oklahoma—and their success may prompt other legislatures to adopt similar measures.

Federal action on these fronts, however, seems unlikely. A Congress threatening to not raise the debt ceiling seems unlikely to pass a stimulus bill—the last one cost around $800 billion—or fund a national, paid family-leave program. Without government help, women's unemployment will remain high and pay equity will not be achieved. Until those are addressed, we should temper talk of a she-covery.

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