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Why are Men Bouncing Back Faster than Women Following the Recession?

By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new Pew report, men are faring better than women in the recovery job market. although more men than women lost jobs during the recession, that trend has reversed. Now men are gaining more jobs – and women are still losing them. According to Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data:

“[Between] June 2009 through May 2011, men gained 768,000 jobs and lowered their unemployment rate by 1.1 percentage points to 9.5%. Women, by contrast, lost 218,000 jobs during the same period, and their unemployment rate increased by 0.2 percentage points to 8.5%…”

What happened to the “mancession” and the much-trumpeted “she-conemy,” in which men lost 71% of the jobs between December 2007 and June 2009?

What’s the reason behind this disparity? Unfortunately, we can’t simply look to history for the answer. It hasn’t happened this way before.

Pew explains, “Changes in the unemployment rate confirm the unique nature of the current recovery. It is the first recovery in which the unemployment rates for men and women have gone in opposite directions — falling for men but rising for women.”

Women’s role in the workforce continues to grow in importance, and we need to figure out what’s going on – or risk losing a valuable segment of high performing employees. Here are three theories for why men may be gaining ground in the recovery, and why women aren’t.

1. Are Traditionally “Female” Fields Not Recovering Fast Enough?

One explanation could be that traditionally “male” industries are bouncing back faster than traditionally “female” ones. But not so, says Pew. In fact, men are bouncing back faster than women in every sector the research organization measures, with the exception of one: state government. The report says:

“In five sectors, notably in retail trade, men have gained jobs while women have lost them. In five other sectors, including education and health services and professional and business services, men gained jobs at a faster rate than women. And in an additional five sectors, such as construction and local governments, men lost jobs at a slower rate than women.”

2. Are Men Considering New Options?

According to Slate writer Annie Lowrey, men may be gaining jobs by broadening their job searches to include roles they might not have considered before. She writes:

“One theory to explain it is that men, facing higher rates of unemployment and feeling more pressed to find work, are being less choosy about accepting positions. Perhaps they are agreeing to wage and benefit cuts. Perhaps they are taking menial positions more readily. Perhaps they are shifting into piecemeal or part-time employment faster… A second, related theory is that men are perhaps being more aggressive about applying for and accepting jobs outside of their normal purview.”

Certainly a possibility, but it seems unlikely that a large portion of unemployed people would turn down a job if it were only slightly out of their field – male or female.

3. Are Employers Falling Back on Old Gender Stereotypes?

TheStreet’s Seth Fiegerman points out that even though women haven’t gained jobs as fast as men over the past two years, they’ve still fared better than men in the past decade. He writes:

“Even with improvements in employment since the recession, men ultimately lost 4.6 million jobs between December 2007 and May 2011, whereas women lost about half of that, or 2.4 million. …Indeed, taking a longer view, the number of women employed in the workforce increased steadily throughout the previous decade, while the number of men employed remained essentially stagnant, driven largely by a growing gap in the education of women versus men. Unless that changes, the male-dominated jobs recovery may prove short-lived.”

Perhaps this short-term trend for hiring men is related to the general economic uncertainty. After all, as David Leonhardt pointed out for the NYTimes blog Economix, men are valued more than women as employees. “Men remain more likely to work, and more highly paid, than women,” he writes.

Maybe employers are falling back on old stereotypes – hiring more men in the recovery because they feel more comfortable with them, or because they view men as “heads of households” who need the work more than women. If this is the case, employers need to take a hard look at their hiring practices. The recovery depends on having the right person in the seat, innovating and creating value, regardless of gender.

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