Women’s Gains in the Job Market: Good News and Bad News

“American women have just achieved a significant milestone,” reports Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times. Women now hold slightly more (50.4 percent) payroll jobs than men. While women passed this milestone once before in mid-2010 during the recession, the economy is now doing well. What has made the difference? Miller explains that

  • Male-dominated occupations, like manufacturing, are shrinking
  • Female-dominated occupations, like healthcare and education, are growing. Men don’t want these jobs, even when they are higher-paying jobs, like nurse practitioners, that are more secure than many jobs in male-dominated occupations

So what is the problem? The problem for men is that they remain under- or unemployed when they refuse to take healthcare or education jobs. But women are also experiencing a problem. When occupations remain female dominated, the pay remains low and the work is devalued. At the other end of the scale, when women enter fields in large numbers that are traditionally male dominated, the pay declines. Let’s look more closely at what is going on that keeps these gendered dynamics in place.

Miller points out the many reasons for the decline in work for men:

  • The rise of automation
  • The waning power of unions
  • Rising incarceration rates
  • Factories that move overseas
  • Challenges to switching jobs, like retraining
  • Gender norms

The United States economy is now service dominated, which means it is female dominated. Women are 84 percent of social service workers and 78 percent of healthcare workers. The norms of masculinity make it hard for men to take jobs that require feminine skills such as interpersonal finesse or care work. Miller explains that markers of masculinity are having a good-paying job that is about making things (not providing services) and “distancing oneself from feminine things.” Miller cites a study by Margarita Torre Fernández, a sociologist at the University Carlos III of Madrid, using data from the census and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth from 1979 to 2006. She found that men would not apply for jobs in nearly every female-dominated occupation, and “some men would rather endure unemployment than accept a relatively high-paying women’s job and suffer the potential social stigma” for doing so. Miller adds that men who have taken pink-collar jobs in the United States are more likely to be black or Hispanic and have the least education and the lowest earnings. Even though these jobs pay less overall, they often pay more than the jobs that black and Hispanic men had access to previously.

Why are women experiencing success in the labor market? Miller suggests that women’s success has been driven by:

  • Educational gains
  • More black and Hispanic women entering the workforce
  • More flexibility and willingness to retrain

The United States is likely to remain a service economy for the foreseeable future. What would improve conditions for the economic health of both women and men? As Miller notes, researchers suggest “that improving the quality of pink-collar jobs, in terms of wages, stability, benefits and hours . . . could attract both men to these jobs and also benefit women.” If these jobs were more highly valued in our society, men would be more likely to want to enter them and women would benefit from higher wages. Miller closes by saying, “Improving the quality of pink-collar, working-class jobs has the potential to close gender gaps—and also to shrink the widening gaps between the highest and lowest earners, both women and men.”


Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Low Unemployment Is Opening Opportunities for Women—But Is It Temporary?

The current low unemployment rate, and resulting tight labor market, might be good for opening opportunities for women—and maybe not. Jed Kolko and Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times report that as our economy continues to recover from the great recession, “traditionally male industries have made a comeback.” During the two-year period of 2016 and 2017, employment in five male-dominated sectors (mining, construction, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing) grew by 3.4 percent versus 2.5 percent in the mixed-gendered and female-dominated sectors. Of note is that the number of employed women economywide grew 2.9 percent versus 2.5 percent for men, and this growth for women was concentrated in male-dominated sectors that are at least two-third male. Kolko and Miller point out that in male-dominated industries and roles involving making and moving physical goods, women’s employment rose 6.9 percent versus 2.3 percent for men. Will this tight labor market permanently help break down gender barriers and open opportunities to higher paying jobs? Maybe yes and maybe no. The authors point out the following factors at play:

  • We have seen women hired into male-dominated industries before during wartime (for example, Rosie the Riveter) and other tight labor markets—only to be laid off when the labor pool relaxed.
  • While women are getting traditionally male jobs, the median earnings for women working full-time are 29 percent below men’s earnings for the same jobs.
  • Women still face more discrimination and harassment.
  • As women start working in a field in great numbers, average pay tends to decline.
  • Long-term job growth will not be in these male-dominated sectors. It will be in the female-dominated healthcare sector.
Time will tell whether this is a permanent or only temporary opening of opportunity for women. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]]>