Women Backslide in Retail Jobs, Losing Yet Another Foothold in the New Economy

Women Backslide in Retail Jobs, Losing Yet Another Foothold in the New Economy

Women Backslide in Retail Jobs, Losing Yet Another Foothold in the New Economy

It’ll be hard for women to win the future if they keep losing ground on their own turf.


Women are on the verge of ruling the new economy, right? They’re getting more college degrees, dominating middle management and grabbing up jobs in industries that are set to see explosive growth. Except that last part is starting to reverse course.

Among the reasons Hannah Rosin highlighted in support of her thesis that the “End of Men” is nigh was, “Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women.” But women have lately been backsliding in important categories. Some new data make the picture look even bleaker.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced in February that 25 percent of all new jobs over the next decade will be in three industries: construction, retail trade and the offices of health practitioners. When it comes to occupations, i.e., actual job titles, the four expected to add the most jobs are registered nurses, retail salespersons, home health aides and personal care aides. 

Notice that retail—think salespeople working in a store—has the promise of growth in both industry and occupation. Women have typically held their own in this area: employment’s usually split about 50-50 between men and women. But not so during the recovery.

According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, men have grabbed a ton of jobs in retail while women have lost them. Take a look at this chart to see it in stark detail:

The NWLC’s report spells it out: “since the recovery began in June 2009, men have gained 395,600 jobs in retail—almost 2.5 times the number of jobs that women have lost (163,400) in the same period.” And this isn’t because men are climbing out of a huge hole in employment from the recession. The job losses there were split about as evenly as prior employment. Men accounted for 55 percent of the jobs lost between December 2007 and June 2009. Yet their job gains have been far more than proportional. As NWLC puts it, “Men have now gained back about 70 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession in retail—but women’s losses have grown by more than one-third since the end of the recovery.”

Perhaps this is unique to retail sales. Maybe stores want some hunky dudes to draw in female shoppers (after all, they make up as much as 80 percent of American consumer spending). Unfortunately this trend isn’t unique to the sector. Remember when manufacturing was seeing a rebound earlier this year? That was entirely male. Men gained 230,000 jobs in the sector between 2010 and 2011, but women lost 25,000. And while you might again wonder if this is due to men experiencing so many job losses during the initial recession, that again proves to be false. The job losses there were massive for men, but mostly because they had so many of the jobs to begin with—it was actually proportional according to gender. 

In fact, while public sector job losses get us a long way toward explaining why women have fallen so far behind men during the recovery, the private sector has been no ray of sunshine. Women have picked up just over a quarter of the jobs added there during the recovery. Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported, men have found a third of their job gains in occupations that are traditionally over 70 percent female.

What’s going on here? It’s hard not to see telltale signs of discrimination. As I wrote last week, given that women typically hold the majority of public sector jobs, you might expect that they would also feel the most pain when budget cutting hits. But in that same piece I noted a new study showing that married women with children spent longer looking for a new job after being laid off than similar men and also saw their earnings decline more. Why pick a married man over a married woman for an open position? Perhaps the man-as-breadwinner ideal is just that strong: we still unconsciously assume a man is supporting a family with his job, even if the majority of women are also bringing home their share of the bacon.

For now, women are still set to make up the majority of home health and personal aides, benefitting from another deep stereotype—that care work is “women’s work.” But women will have a hard time winning the future if discrimination is still so rampant throughout our economy, even if it’s subtle. It’s said that times of crisis can bring out the best in a people, whether it be a natural or economic disaster. But they can also expose the fault lines that were buried beneath the surface all along. If the recovery period is any indication of how society thinks about women workers, they’ll continue to face an uphill battle in the workforce, even with other forces pushing them along.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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