The Rise in Women's Share of Nonfarm Employment during the 2007-2009 Recession: A Historical Perspective

By Wood, Catherine A. | Monthly Labor Review, April 2014 | Go to article overview

The Rise in Women's Share of Nonfarm Employment during the 2007-2009 Recession: A Historical Perspective


Wood, Catherine A., Monthly Labor Review


During the most recent recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, (1) job losses among men outnumbered those among women by 2.6 to 1. Also during this period, women's employment reached 50.0 percent of total nonfarm employment for the first time since the series began in 1964. This article discusses the long-term trend in the employment share of women and men on nonfarm payrolls. It highlights the sustained growth of women's employment during previous downturns and contrasts this long-term growth with the female employment experience during the most recent recession, in which women lost more jobs than they did in any of the previous downturns. The article also examines the diverging trends of job losses between women and men working in industries that were most and least affected by recent recessions and analyzes employment dynamics in the most recent recession and postrecessionary period. Data presented in the article are based on estimates from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey.

Long-term expansion of women's employment

The CES payroll survey first began to produce employment estimates of women for all industry sectors in January 1964, at which point women held 31.7 percent of total nonfarm jobs. (2) Women's employment has continued to expand nonfarm payrolls over the past half century and accounted for an unprecedented 50.0 percent of all payroll jobs in the last month of the most recent recession. The women's share of payroll jobs held at that level for 11 consecutive months and then edged down; as of December 2013, however, that share was still high, at 49.5 percent.

Over the past 49 years, women's employment has largely expanded relative to men's employment. Between 1964 and 1991, the share of women's employment rose steadily, as women's employment rose faster than men's. (See figure 1.) That share leveled off soon after the 1990-1991 recession, and, except for periods of recession when the women's share of employment saw gains, the rates of job growth for both genders have been similar since then. After reaching a recent low in June 2006, the women's share of employment rose throughout the 2007-2009 recession and has edged lower since March 2010.

As shown in table 1, the share of women's employment has expanded in each of the past seven recessions, as men have historically experienced the majority of net job losses and women's employment has tended to fluctuate less in the business cycle. The table presents annualized rates of change, which remove the effect of the varying lengths of recessions and represent a measure that is comparable across scales. Annualized rates also more clearly show the continued resilience of women's employment to sustained job losses during downturns.

The CES survey versus the CPS survey

The Bureau of Labor Statistics produces two monthly employment series that are independently obtained: (1) the estimate of total nonfarm jobs, derived from the CES survey, also called the establishment or payroll survey; and (2) the estimate of total civilian employment, derived from the Current Population Survey (CPS), also called the household survey. (3) The two surveys use different definitions of employment, as well as different survey and estimation methods. The data used in this article are from the CES survey, a survey of employers that provides a measure of the number of payroll jobs in nonfarm industries. The CPS is a household survey that provides a measure of employed people ages 16 years and older in the civilian noninstitutional population.

Whereas CES payroll employment estimates are restricted to nonagricultural wage and salary jobs and exclude private household workers, CPS estimates are based on a broader employment definition. Employment estimates from the CPS provide information about workers in both the agricultural and nonagricultural sectors and about all types of work arrangements; that information captures workers with wage and salary jobs (including employment in a private household), the unincorporated self-employed, unpaid absences from work, multiple job holders, and those doing unpaid work for at least 15 hours a week in a business or farm operated by a family member. …

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