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For Some Women, Discrimination Prevents Return to Work | The Nation

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Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert

Lady business with equal parts lady and business.

For Some Women, Discrimination Prevents Return to Work

Women have yet to recover in the recovery. While men suffered bloated unemployment levels during the “mancession,” the trends have since reversed. Since the beginning of the recovery (June 2009), men experienced more than quadruple the job gains made by women. This can at least be partially explained by the fact that men were climbing back from low employment levels, plus massive layoffs in some areas, such as education, where women hold the majority of jobs. But can it all be explained that way? A new study helps fill in the picture with what else might be at work: good old-fashioned discrimination.

There are some logical, if preventable, reasons for women’s employment struggles: first and foremost is the fact that austerity and budget cutting has lead to a historic loss of public sector jobs, and women, who are the majority of government workers, have born the brunt of those layoffs. We’ve lost about 600,000 public sector jobs since the recession ended, making for the smallest government workforce relative to our population since 1968. Much of those were public school teachers. For every ten jobs women gained in the private sector during the recovery, they’ve lost more than four public sector jobs. And yes, we might expect men to make faster job gains after experiencing such low levels of employment during the height of the crisis.

But can these trends explain all of it? This year, women have been making some gains in the private sector, but last year they were also losing those jobs as men gained them back. Meanwhile, men have been making inroads into traditionally female sectors during the recovery. Men have found a third of their jobs in occupations that are (or, at least, were) more than 70 percent female.

While public sector job losses are painful, in theory it makes sense that women would be the hardest hit, since those workers are disproportionately female. But there’s new evidence that discrimination plays a role in some women’s struggles to return to the labor force. Authors Michelle Maroto, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, and Brian Serafini, graduate student at the University of Washington, looked at a national sample of displaced workers from the Census Bureau who were laid off for various economic—not performance-related—reasons. They found that in 2010 married mothers who had lost their jobs spent longer than married fathers looking for work. Once they did find a job, their earnings decreased more than men’s—by $175 a week, or $9,100 a year.

And we can’t just write this off as a result of the “mommy track” at work. As Serafini put it, “These findings hold true across different backgrounds, such as occupation, earnings and work history. This implies that laid-off moms aren’t just taking part-time jobs or seeing being laid off as a way to opt out of the workforce and embrace motherhood instead.” What it does expose is discrimination against mothers in the workforce. Meanwhile, fathers might actually get a boost. Married men fared even better than unmarried men in finding a new job.

There is one glimmer of hope for women in the new study: single, childless women seemed to get back to work faster than similar men. But they both fared the same when it came to the drop in earnings between the old job to the new one. 

This study may also shed light on those who have dropped out of the labor force altogether, having lost their job but also given up on looking for a new one. The number of people in that group, both men and women, has been at record levels this year, but while men have dropped out at a higher rate, it’s almost all due to the continuation of a decades-long trend. Women, on the other hand, got an abrupt shove out of the workforce when the recession hit.

Why would women drop out? Once reason, as proposed by the authors of a paper for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, is because “nonmarket” work becomes more productive for women when the job market is in a nosedive—they can feel it’s just as valuable to watch the children and clean the home than to try and find a job. They could also be pursuing other options, like getting a higher degree or going into early retirement.

But what if women are running into a wall of discrimination when job hunting, as this new study suggests? If you end up looking for work for a protracted period of time, it’s not hard to see why you might end up throwing in the towel and finding something better to do with your time—particularly if the jobs you do find pay you so much less than you deserve. History shows that the pay gap itself can lead women to drop out. Those who make less than their similarly educated husbands have been sliding out of the workforce since the nineties, so if they’re being offered even less pay than they used to make, it could be that much more incentive to stay home.

Discrimination can be hard to prove, particularly if it’s subtle and unconscious. But study after study after study has shown that women face bias in the workforce. It looks like the recession has been no exception. Even as the majority of women bring home the bacon, the myth of the man as breadwinner is so pervasive that it seems to have impacted whether women can get back to work after the worst recession since the 1930s.

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