Mothers may have had something extra to celebrate on Sunday as they were brought breakfast in bed: getting a job. They were probably expecting bad news. Since the beginning of the recovery, women have gained only 16 percent of the almost 2.5 million jobs added, which is part of why their unemployment rate has dipped only 0.2 percentage points while men’s has been reduced by 2.4 points. Yet along with the flowers and hand-drawn cards, last month’s jobs report came as a gift to some women. Could it be a sign that they are finally going to participate in the economic recovery?
April’s jobs report had more positive signs for women’s job growth than any over the past few years. According to the National Women’s Law Center’s analysis, they gained almost three-quarters of the jobs added last month. As the report notes, that’s “the largest share of monthly job gains for women since the start of the recovery.” Remember that just last August, they were steadily losing jobs. Even more surprising is that while women have suffered two-thirds of the public sector layoffs since 2009, last month the tables were turned. The public sector shed 15,000 jobs, but it was men who felt that pain; women actually gained 4,000 jobs.
The recovery does look like it’s becoming kinder to women. This year has so far been much better for women’s unemployment picture than the past three. But it may not be time to get comfortable yet. As Joan Entmacher, vice president of NWLC, told me, because the overall number of jobs added last month was so small, it didn’t take much for women to come out on top. After all, 73 percent of only 115,000 jobs won’t make a huge dent in a high unemployment rate.
And it’s no time to get optimistic about public-sector jobs. Last month’s new trend of women’s gaining those jobs “could change when you hit June, July and August, when teachers start getting layoff notices,” Entmacher pointed out. Women hold the vast majority of those jobs, and they’ve been completely hammered in the recovery period. As of March we had lost 236,500 jobs in local education, a k a public school teachers. Don’t forget that GOP legislatures at the state level have been driving those cuts, and news that Philadelphia, under conservative Governor Corbett, is on the verge of shuttering sixty-four schools should comfort no one. Nor should the fact that thirty states still face budget shortfalls totaling $49 billion. The recovery’s story overall is still pretty disheartening. “When you look over the course of recovery,” Katherine Gallagher Robbins of the NWLC told me, “for every two jobs women gained in the private sector they’ve lost a public sector job.”
Could there be a silver lining, however, in the private sector? That’s where the really good news was last month: women grabbed over 60 percent of those jobs in April. Some of those were in professional and business services industries such as education and health, which are predicted to have strong growth over the next decade. They even got jobs in blue-collar manufacturing. They also gained jobs in leisure and hospitality—think waitresses in restaurants and maids in hotels—and temporary health services. But even those higher-paying professional and business service jobs were likely to be temporary: about half of the jobs women got in those sectors weren’t permanent, compared with 27 percent for men.
It will certainly be welcome news if women start picking up private-sector jobs in large numbers. But as I recently wrote about the economy overall, we also have to ask what kind of jobs those will be. Temporary jobs in particular pay more poorly than their full-time counterparts and offer little stability and few benefits. Yet they accounted for over a quarter of new private sector jobs created in 2010. Women already tend to hold unstable, low-benefit service sector jobs, so the last thing we need is for the trend to be amplified as the economy emerges from disaster. As this graph of the number of education jobs versus the number of food services jobs shows (h/t Matt Yglesias), we may be trading our teachers—decent-paying, stable work—in for low-pay waitresses: