With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history.
The reason has less to do with gender equality than with where the ax is falling.
The proportion of women who are working has changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.
“Given how stark and concentrated the job losses are among men, and that women represented a high proportion of the labor force in the beginning of this recession, women are now bearing the burden — or the opportunity, one could say — of being breadwinners,” says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.
Economists have predicted before that women would one day dominate the labor force as more ventured outside the home. The number of women entering the work force slowed and even dipped during the boom years earlier this decade, though, prompting a debate about whether women truly wanted to be both breadwinners and caregivers.
Should the male-dominated layoffs of the current recession continue — and Friday’s jobs report for January may offer more insight — the debate will be moot. A deep and prolonged recession, therefore, may change not only household budgets and habits; it may also challenge longstanding gender roles.
In recessions, the percentage of families supported by women tends to rise slightly, and it is expected to do so when this year’s numbers are tallied. As of November, women held 49.1 percent of the nation’s jobs, according to nonfarm payroll data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By another measure, including farm workers and the self-employed, women constituted 47.1 percent of the work force.
Women may be safer in their jobs, but tend to find it harder to support a family. For one thing, they work fewer overall hours than men. Women are much more likely to be in part-time jobs without health insurance or unemployment insurance. Even in full-time jobs, women earn 80 cents for each dollar of their male counterparts’ income, according to the government data.
“A lot of jobs that men have lost in fields like manufacturing were good union jobs with great health care plans,” says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “The jobs women have — and are supporting their families with — are not necessarily as good.”
Nasreen Mohammed, for example, works five days a week, 51 weeks a year, without sick days or health benefits.
She runs a small day care business out of her home in Milpitas, Calif., and recently expanded her services to include after-school care. The business brings in about $30,000 annually, she says, far less than the $150,000 her husband earned in the marketing and sales job he lost over a year ago. “It’s peanuts,” she says.
She switched from being a full-time homemaker to a full-time businesswoman when her husband was laid off previously. She says she unexpectedly discovered that she loves her job, even if it is demanding.
Still, her husband, Javed, says he and their three children — who are in third grade, junior college and law school — worry about her health, and hope things can “return to the old days.”
“In terms of the financial benefit from her work, we all benefit,” he says. “But in terms of getting my wife’s attention, from the youngest daughter to our oldest, we can’t wait for the day that my job is secure and she doesn’t have to do day care anymore.”
Women like Ms. Mohammed find themselves at the head of once-separate spheres: work and household. While women appear to be sole breadwinners in greater numbers, they are likely to remain responsible for most domestic responsibilities at home.
On average, employed women devote much more time to child care and housework than employed men do, according to recent data from the government’s American Time Use Survey analyzed by two economists, Alan B. Krueger and Andreas Mueller.
When women are unemployed and looking for a job, the time they spend daily taking care of children nearly doubles. Unemployed men’s child care duties, by contrast, are virtually identical to those of their working counterparts, and they instead spend more time sleeping, watching TV and looking for a job, along with other domestic activities.
Many of the unemployed men interviewed say they have tried to help out with cooking, veterinarian appointments and other chores, but they have not had time to do more because job-hunting consumes their days.
“The main priority is finding a job and putting in the time to do that,” says John Baruch, in Arlington Heights, Ill., who estimates he spends 35 to 45 hours a week looking for work since being laid off in January 2008.
While he has helped care for his wife’s aging parents, the couple still sometimes butt heads over who does things like walking the dog, now that he is out of work. He puts it this way: “As one of the people who runs one of the career centers I’ve been to told me: ‘You’re out of a job, but it’s not your time to paint the house and fix the car. Your job is about finding the next job.’ ”
Many women say they expect their family roles to remain the same, even if economic circumstances have changed for now.
“I don’t know if I’d really call myself a ‘breadwinner,’ since I earn practically nothing,” says Linda Saxby, who assists the librarian at the Cypress, Tex., high school her two daughters attend. Her husband, whose executive-level position was eliminated last May, had been earning $225,000, and the family is now primarily living off savings.
Historically, the way couples divide household jobs has been fairly resistant to change, says Heidi Hartmann, president and chief economist at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
“Over a long, 20-year period, married men have stepped up to the plate a little bit, but not as much as married women have dropped off in the time they spend on household chores,” Ms. Hartmann says. This suggests some domestic duties have been outsourced, as when takeout substitutes for cooking, for example. And as declining incomes force families to cut back on these outlays, she says, “women will most likely pick up the slack.”
A severe recession could put pressure on these roles.
“It has definitely put a strain” on my marriage, says Debbie Harlan, an executive assistant at a hospital system in Sarasota, Fla. Four months ago, her husband closed his 10-year-old independent car sales business, and the couple have been asking their children to help with bills. “So far we’ve worked through it, but there have been times when I wasn’t sure we could.”
The Mohammeds say things are not as stressful as they were the last time Mr. Mohammed lost his job. He has been helping out with the cooking and with paperwork for his wife’s business, and she says she works to prop up family morale.
“Things are not happy in the house if I blame him all the time, so I don’t do any of that anymore,” Ms. Mohammed says. “I know he is doing his best.”