Winners and Losers in Recession's Battle of the Sexes

Reuters and CNBC Staff

Sometimes it’s hard to be a man. The current recession is a case in point.

Men account for three quarters of the 7 million U.S. job losses, leading to talk of a “man-cession.” With male unemployment rampant, women are on the cusp of a historic breakthrough. Before the end of the year, women are likely to form a majority of salaried U.S. workers for the first time.

Stressed out man

Government statistics show jobs held by men have declined 6.46 percent from their peak during this recession, while jobs held by women have fallen only 2.88 percent.

That translates to 4.9 million fewer men employed, compared to 1.8 million fewer women holding jobs. CNBC's Senior Economics Reporter Steve Liesman says this recession has been twice as bad for men than women and six times worse for men than the last recession in 2001.

However, the novelty of the man-cession may have been  overstated. Delve deeper, and men have not been doing so badly by historic standards. Nor have women been making great breakthroughs.

First, recessions are almost always man-cessions. In 2001, the most recent downturn, women accounted for just 14 percent of job losses, U.S. government figures show. The picture was even clearer in the recession of the early 1990s. Of the 1.2 million positions that disappeared, females accounted for just 22,000 — slightly less than 2 percent.

Nor can this be explained by the fact that there were fewer women working. Even in the early 1990s women accounted for 47 percent of the workforce.

The reason that men are more sensitive — to recessions at least — is that they are overrepresented in highly cyclical sectors. Nine out of 10 workers in construction, and seven out of 10 in manufacturing, are male. These sectors generally take the biggest tumble when the economy declines. Women, meanwhile, dominate the most cosseted portions of the economy: healthcare, education and government.

Despite this, the current downturn has been no cakewalk for women. While women have been better at clinging onto their jobs, they have not done so well holding onto their salaries.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women in full-time work saw their annual earnings fall at twice the pace of men in the early stages of the recession — losing almost 2 percent last year.

The news actually gets worse for women. Most measures of employment and salary suggest the gender revolution has stalled.

The gulf between male and female salaries, which narrowed dramatically in the last 25 years, has started to widen again.

In 2005 women on average earned 81 percent as much as men. By the end of last year, this was slipping back to 79.9 percent. Much of this is accounted for by shorter working hours and choice of industry.

Even taking this into account, however, academics like Shelley Correll at Stanford University have shown that there is still a “motherhood penalty” built into the workforce. Correll calculates that mothers who work just as hard as male counterparts earn about 5 percent less per child.

Progress on the desegregation of the workforce and attitudes to gender roles have not advanced since the mid-1990s. This is despite the fact that women are now outpacing men academically — earning 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent of master’s.

Since superior academic performance doesn’t seem to be narrowing the gap, perhaps a renewed drive by government and companies could root out discrimination and create a more family-friendly work place.

Although the United States has excellent anti-discrimination laws, enforcement is woefully underfunded.

Another possible but more expensive step would be greater provision of childcare. Increasing the length of the school day, lowering the starting age and reducing school vacations might all help — as could more generous paternity leave.

And larger employers could be encouraged to expand the provision of workplace nurseries — a reliable way of attracting highly skilled mothers.

As the slide in manufacturing and production tails off, male workers can expect some relief. The problems of many women in the workforce are far more ingrained and harder to deal with. Man-cession aside, it’s still a man’s world.

- CNBC's Senior Economics Reporter Steve Liesman contributed to this story