One Mancession Later, Are Women Really Victors in the New Economy?

One Mancession Later, Are Women Really Victors in the New Economy?

One Mancession Later, Are Women Really Victors in the New Economy?

Women dominate growing sectors like retail and home healthcare—but the jobs there are grueling and the wages are low.


Six years ago, the housing bubble imploded, igniting the recession. Construction and manufacturing soon crumbled, taking jobs mostly held by men down with them. Not long after, AEI’s Mark J. Perry referred to the “mancession” when testifying before Congress, and hand-wringing trend pieces, worrying that men would experience a permanent slump in employment and wages, began to appear.

The apotheosis of this genre, Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men,” appeared in The Atlantic in the summer of 2010, going one step further to suggest that an “unprecedented role reversal [was] now under way.” What if, Rosin asked, women are better suited to today’s economy? What if the mancession presages a new economy in which women’s skills and talents are prized over men’s, and men’s economic prospects never recover? (To see how this trope lives on, just watch the trailers for ABC’s now-defunct show Work It in which two out-of-work—male—mechanics resorted to dressing in drag to score jobs.)

Women make up almost half of the workforce today, up from about thirty percent in 1940. We hold over half of middle management jobs. More women than men are employed in growing industries like healthcare and retail sales. Shortly after Rosin’s article appeared, a study found that young, urban, childless women make more than similar men do.

But anyone who declares that women have “won” the new economy is premature at best. Women may be over-represented in growing sectors, but those jobs pay poorly, offer few benefits, come with grudging work and provide little opportunity for advancement. The edge on wages experienced by young women evaporates as they progress in their careers. When women do get to middle management, they’re paid less than men and they struggle to advance much further up the ladder. And women with children are left far behind.

So what happened to the “mancession” once the recovery officially began in June 2009? Women’s unemployment has continued to rise as men have gained their jobs back. Women gained less than 8 percent of the 1.9 million jobs added, and now men’s and women’s unemployment rates have converged at 7.7 percent. Public sector layoffs have hit women particularly hard. Across the country, women have lost 414,000 government jobs, many due to teacher layoffs. As of October, 300,000 educator jobs had been lost, accounting for over half of those lost at the local government level.

Women have been losing ground across private-sector industries too. Secretaries and administrative assistants, both female-dominated positions, have been laid off in droves. As employers ask their workers to do more work for the same or less pay in tough times, secretaries have become disposable. Women had lost 925,000 of these jobs as of July, but men had gained 204,000.

But women were stuck in disposable, low-income jobs long before the recession. One of the trends that got Rosin excited is that women dominate many of the industries projected to grow over the next decade, including retail sales and healthcare. It’s true that women disproportionately hold retail sales, home health and personal care jobs, all of which are set to see the most growth. But these jobs not only pay poorly and have few benefits; they are also unstable and are poorly protected by labor laws or unionization.

Retail jobs offer paltry pay and few benefits, if any. In a recent survey of 436 New York City workers, the Retail Action Project (RAP) found that over half earn less than $10 an hour. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds don’t get any health benefits and less than half get paid time off or paid sick days. Increasingly, employers rely on a part-time or temporary workforce, enabling them to deny benefits to employees.

There was a time when retail jobs made for full-time careers. Tami Tyree, a New Yorker in her mid-50s, graduated from college and had a long, steady run as a salesperson in Manhattan’s high fashion district. “I came into the industry at a time when you could have a career and what America defines as a good job,” she told me. Retired, she went back in the past few months to earn some supplemental income. She was shocked by the way her industry had changed. “I didn’t understand how a person could base their life” on such unstable, low-pay work, she said.

Even in good times, Tyree’s male colleagues fared better. Men were concentrated in the shoe department, which was unionized and thus able to fend off pay and benefit changes imposed on the women, mainly, who were selling clothes. “They had power,” she says.“It’s a female-dominated industry, yet we’re not the ones that are making the money,” she says.

Then as now, the situation in retail is worse for women workers. According RAP’s report, the average woman in retail makes $9.77 an hour while men make $10.64. Women are less likely than their male coworkers to receive already scarce health coverage or paid time off or to be promoted. Without a union or another third party to mediate disputes or set industry practices, women and minorities have little recourse against structural discrimination. “One of the fastest growing workforces in America is vulnerable to the whims and prejudices of whatever manager is on the shop floor,” says RAP’s director Carrie Gleason. On top of this, the jobs aren’t work-family friendly, particularly last minute scheduling—over half of workers know their schedules only a week in advance—that makes it nearly impossible for mothers to find childcare for their kids.

Women also dominate some booming sectors of the health industry, but the jobs are grueling and the benefits few. The number of home health aide jobs will grow by 50 percent from 2008 to 2018 and women make up 95 percent of these workers. Yet the wages are dismal—median pay is under $10 per hour, but even the top 10 percent earn only around $14 per hour. Thelma Reta, a home health aide in Los Angeles, doesn’t get any healthcare coverage and often has to go to food banks to supplement what she earns, “which is quite less than the minimum wage.” She’s on call twenty-four hours a day in case her elderly patient needs to get up in the middle of the night. It can be satisfying work—“I’ve learned to love the job of caregiver because I love people,” she says—but it can also be dangerous. One patient with Alzheimer’s and another with bipolar depression can get violent, and the latter stands a foot over her. “I don’t want to fight back because that would be grounds to put me in prison,” she says. She has nowhere to turn when employers demand she do extra work, as talking back risks her job.

Only recently has the Labor Department moved to bring home healthcare aides under some of the protections of federal labor law. That’s because it’s work that has “never fully been valued or protected or recognized or accounted for in our economy,” says Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s the invisible resource that makes everything else possible that’s always taken for granted.”

Rosin and other mancession worriers have suggested that men are under-represented in service jobs because they can’t or won’t adapt to the skills the positions demand. “Implicit [in the idea of the mancession] is that men are inadaptable, which isn’t true, or that men are left behind as we move on,” says Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress. But this undervaluation, both social and economic, of the work women tend to do may be the bigger reason why men don’t dive in, she said. If these were better jobs—with fair pay, benefits and advancement opportunities to make them attractive—not only would the women working them benefit, but men may decide those jobs are worth their time after all.

* * *

If women are thriving in growing industries, they should also be proportionally represented in the higher ranks of these companies. But that’s not the case. In healthcare, only 16.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ executive officers are women; only 18.7 percent of executive officers in retail are women.

According to research done by Catalyst, an organization focused on women in business, this is evidence that a broken “pipeline” isn’t moving workers from the lower ranks to upper-management jobs. Women make up about half of middle management, an impressive statistic when one considers that they made up about a third of the entire workforce just sixty years ago. Yet they only count for 14 percent of executive officers in Fortune 500 companies, 16 percent of board seats in those companies and just a measly 3.6 percent of CEOs. On top of this, only 7.5 percent can be counted among the top earners at these companies. Research does not suggest that women are dropping out of the race for these higher-earning jobs. As Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, put it to me, “Often women get stuck having to prove themselves over and over again. That’s a block; they’re not going up.”

And even those women who do have middle-management jobs experience wage disparity. A report from the Government Accountability Office in 2010 found that, as in the retail industry, their higher numbers haven’t guaranteed equal pay with men. Adjusted for various factors, they earn eighty-one cents for every dollar earned by male managers—up a measly two cents since 2000.

The wage gap is one of the most blatant and persistent inequalities women face in the workplace. That’s why there was much celebration of a 2010 study found that unmarried, childless urban female workers aged 22 to 30 earn 8 percent more than men in the same category. To set aside my Debbie Downer role for a second, this is momentous—it marks the first time women have out-earned men.

But I do have to burst the bubble. What happens when those women have children? Not only do they begin to earn less than men, but an even bigger gap opens up between their wages and those of childless women. In fact, one study found that each child reduces a mother’s earnings by 5 percent, even when adjusted for many other factors. (Meanwhile, children actually increase a father’s earnings.)

Why such a stark contrast between childless women and mothers? A big clue lies in our country’s shamefully inadequate policies on childcare and family leave. Laurel Lucia, a policy analyst at UC Berkeley and a co-author of a study on the economic impacts of childcare, told me that for women “a lack of access to childcare can reduce labor force participation and earnings.” Higher pay is correlated with a continuous work history—made possible when women don’t have to disrupt their work to care for children. Meanwhile, a recent Rutgers study shows that paid family leave increases mothers’ wages: those who take leave for a month or more are over 50 percent more likely to report wage increases the following year following the child’s birth than those who don’t take any leave. Yet a recent Census Bureau analysis showed that almost half of all first-time mothers receive no paid leave. Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, points out that while women may have changed the face of the workforce, “the twenty-first-century workplace in America hasn’t really changed in terms of leaves or flexibility” to care for children or other family members.

Economic equality may sound like an expensive proposition for employers. But female-dominated industries aren’t hurting for cash. Holiday shoppers lifted retail sales 4.1 percent at the end of last year, much higher than the ten-year average of 2.6 percent, generating a record $471.5 billion for the industry. Even during a downturn, public home health service companies made a 4 percent net profit in 2009 and private ones made 6. Could some of those billions of dollars be put toward paying decent wages and creating supportive work environments for the women helping bring them in? All companies can afford better work-family policies—like flexible hours, family leave or sick days—as the benefits from reducing absenteeism and turnover, improving workers’ health and thereby increasing productivity usually outweigh the costs. The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers reports that, extrapolating from the positive experience of flexible policies at one large utility company, “wholesale adoption of flexible workplace schedules could save about $15 billion a year.”

In other words: we’ve come so close and yet we’re so far, baby. In the workplace, women have made great strides, but full economic and workplace equality with men remains out of reach.

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