Paging Sheryl Sandberg: Women are leaving the workforce in droves

March 8, 2013
March 8, 2013

Anyone who’s a believer in the “end of men” hasn’t seen the latest employment data, ironically out on International Women’s Day.

In the last year, as the US economy has slowly and steadily added jobs, hundreds of thousands of women have given up on the labor market. Women’s labor force participation rate has faded, and 630,000 fewer women were employed in February compared to a year earlier. During the same time period, 1.1 more men were working.  

“It’s very clear that women have not benefitted from the recovery,” said Sophia Koropekyj, an economist at Moody’s Analytics. Some are even calling this a “he-covery” because several sectors showing considerable growth, notably construction and manufacturing, “are dominated by men,” she said.

Women have also bore the brunt of public teacher cuts with state and local job reductions, Koropekyj said. About 80% of public school teachers in the US are female. “The decline is most notable to 45 to 54-year-old women,” she said, some of whom may have enough years tenure to retire with a pension.

An analysis done by the National Women’s Law Center in February found that one-fourth of women’s gains since the US economic recovery (which technically began in June 2009) swept away by public sector cutbacks: women lost 454,000 government jobs, 70% more than men.

Since the recovery, women have also gained only 1.8 million of the 5 million new private sector jobs.

The number of men in the labor force, either working or looking for jobs, inched down from 70.3 to 70.1%, while women’s participation rate fell a half percentage point to 57.4% from Feb. 2012 to February of this year. 

There’s a million different stories that make up the job and labor force participation,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. Many men and women may be waiting on the sidelines because opportunities seem so scarce, she said. Since the recovery began, her analysis of labor statistics shows participation rates of men and women are down the same amount, by 2.1 percentage points.

In some ways, the hit to women’s employment shows the ripple effects of the housing bust, which first claimed construction and finance jobs (largely held by men) and then as home values and tax revenues fell, reduced local and state governments payrolls (cutting women’s jobs), Koropekyj noted.

So men’s jobless rates, which had been much higher than women’s are now basically even: 7.8% for men in February versus 7.7% for women.

Even with the recent declines, American women’s participation rate still is above the share of working women in Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though a higher share of women in Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands hold jobs or want them.  

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