Employment: Say so long to the "she–conomy"

As the economy recovers, men are winning back jobs lost in the 'he–cession.'

There was a time, less than two years ago, when women seemed poised to overtake men and become the majority of the American workforce. As male-dominated fields such as manufacturing were slashed, women’s employment rates looked strong, and the economic downturn earned the nickname “he-cession.” But as public-sector budgets were cut to reflect private-sector ruin, any hope of women’s employment surpassing men’s was dashed. Now, not only has the U.S. women’s job growth trend slowed, it has reversed. So long to the “she-conomy.”

While men sustained more than 70% of the job losses during the recession, new numbers from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. suggest that through 2010, male employment rates increased and eventually surpassed those of women. In some months of the year, women were actually losing jobs as men were making gains. And while one million male jobs were added in 2010, women added fewer than 150,000.

Some of this increase is due to a rise in manufacturing and construction jobs (fields dominated by men), which were the hardest hit in the U.S. during the recession. In fact, half of all jobs lost by Americans were from these industries. Now that those positions are returning, men are going back to work as women continue to lose jobs in this sector. But the trend shows that men have also surpassed women in transportation, utilities and administration.

Of course, the gains that have been made by men are relatively small, and the country continues to struggle under the weight of its stubbornly high number of unemployed citizens. The U.S. added just 36,000 jobs to the economy in January of this year, which is about half of what Canada added, and only about one quarter of the 136,000 that had been forecast.

In December, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 9% from 9.4%, but economists pointed out that this shift was likely thanks to despondent Americans simply leaving the job market. And although the idea of women making great gains in the workforce was good for rallying female morale back in 2009, a look at data from previous downturns shows that every recession is essentially a he-cession. Most recently, in the layoffs of the early 1990s, only 2% of jobs lost were held by women. Similarly, in 2001’s economic dip, women’s job losses accounted for only 14% of total layoffs, largely because women overwhelmingly work in recession-proof industries such as health care, education and the public sector. In the end, men simply have more cyclical unemployment rates.

Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke has indicated that a real recovery in the U.S. is unlikely without a “sustained period of stronger job creation,” and he thinks it could well be “several years” before that becomes a reality. Until then, the Great Recession may have been a he-cession, but if the past few months are any indication, it’s also shaping up to be a long, slow he-covery.