Women and Jobs in Recessions: 1969-92

By Goodman, William; Antczak, Stephen et al. | Monthly Labor Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview

Women and Jobs in Recessions: 1969-92


Goodman, William, Antczak, Stephen, Freeman, Laura, Monthly Labor Review


Some recent statements in the media reveal a belief that women lose jobs in recessions before men do, and in proportionately larger numbers.(1) These perceptions are not supported by the facts. This article discusses employment of women in recessions, and the sharp differences between the latest recession and earlier Ones.

It is true that trends in women's employment during recessions are quite different from those for men, but men, not women, experience the bulk of net job loss, even though men and women now hold jobs in roughly equal numbers. In each of the last five recessions,(2) men lost at least 9 times as many jobs as women did. This fact is primarily attributable to the distribution of male and female employees in the various industries and the degree of cyclical job loss in each industry during recessions. The goods-producing industries, which employ large numbers of men, sustain the greatest job losses during downturns. Certain service-producing industries that employ primarily women actually continue to grow in recessions.

During the latest (1990-91) recession, however, the discrepancy between men and women was sharply reduced, reflecting in pan the unusual and, in some cases, serious declines in certain service-producing industries. (See chart 1 .)

Employment: the facts

The Current Employment Statistics survey of businesses (which estimates the number of U.S. payroll jobs) provides evidence that men experienced the bulk of job losses in all recessions since 1964, when complete employment estimates by sex were first produced.(3) In the first 3 of these 5 most recent recessions, the number of women on payrolls in fact rose (although, of course, individual women lost jobs), while the number of men losing jobs far exceeded the number hired. (See table 1.)

In the last two recessions, women did lose jobs on a net basis, although men lost 9 to 19 times as many. (See table 1 .) The unusual losses for women in the two recessions had quite different causes. In the recession of 1981-82, women lost about 135,000 net jobs, largely reflecting a decline of about 170,000 jobs held by women in government, as Federal aid to State and local governments was reduced; meanwhile, the number of private-sector jobs held by women increased slightly. In the recession of the early 1990's, women lost about 125,000 net payroll jobs, with women's employment in government increasing while jobs held by women in the private sector decreased by approximately 145,000. The 1990's recession brought the greatest private-sector loss of jobs for women in more than 20 years, as several important service-producing industries were much weaker than in preceding downturns.

The 1990-91 recession also was unusual in that a net decline in jobs continued for 11 months after the official March 1991 ending point of the recession. To fully understand the differing impact of the recession on men and women, the postrecession period of continuing job losses should be analyzed. From the start of the downturn in July 1990 to the lowest point of employment in February 1992, men lost a net 1.7 million payroll jobs while women gained approximately 50,000 jobs. Whether the official recession period or the entire period of decline in employment is considered, women at worst accounted for only a small fraction of the net jobs lost.

The broader measure of all civilian employment from the Current Population Survey of households4 confirms that men incur most of the job loss during recessions. The household survey indicates that the number of employed women actually increased during 3 of the last 5 recessions and declined slightly in 2---including the most recent one--while the number of employed men fell more steeply in all five cases. Unemployment data from the household survey also show that men are hit harder than women in recessions. In the four most recent recessions, the number of unemployed men expanded by 1-1/2 to 3 times the increase in the number of unemployed women.

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