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Small Steps Forward in Job Gains, But Not Enough to Close Gender Gap

road signs for recession and recoveryBy Caroline Hopper

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data, showing 65,000 of the 120,000 jobs gained last month went to women. While I welcome this news, I would like to take a step back and examine the full picture before celebrating. The numbers also show that 339,000 women have dropped out of the labor market and the gender job gap remains at 1.5 million jobs.

During what has been an extended recovery from the recent economic crisis, men have gained a significantly larger  number of jobs than women. Since October of 2009, when men and women showed similar total job numbers, men have gained over 1.5 million more jobs than women, according to IWPR. In fact, just in the past year, women have filled only 30 percent of the 1.6 million jobs added to payrolls.

Women Abandoned Job Market

As a college student during final exams week, these statistics leave me deflated. It’s hard to stay motivated during sleepless nights in the library, working towards a degree and a profession, with these numbers looming over my head. The outlook for anyone to find a job after college is not good and for me, as a woman, it may be even worse. Once in the job market, women also face a gender wage gap that can cut deeply into their lifetime earnings—leaving them behind in their retirement years.

I’m not alone in this discouragement. According to BLS data, from October to November, 339,000 women stopped looking for work and dropped out of the labor market. Meanwhile, 23,000 men starting working or combing the classifieds for job postings. This could be a cause for some of the apparent improvement in unemployment rates (which fell for both women and men).

According to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, those who have abandoned the job market recently might be teachers or other employees who have been laid off from the public sector. IWPR research found that at the local level, between December 2008 and July 2011, the number of women in public sector employment  decreased by 4.7 percent while the number of men  decreased by only 1.6 percent. The majority of employees in the local public sector are elementary and secondary teachers.

Balancing Act for Women Has Gotten More Difficult

Another factor leading to these departures from the job market is the difficulty for women with obligations to care for children or for elderly parents to find a job that will accommodate their needs in a poor economy. For a woman, it is now even harder to try to do it all, balancing family and career.

According to an IWPR/Rockefeller Foundation survey released in October, women are less willing to move or accept a longer commute for a new job (54 percent of women would accept an increase in commuting time compared with 64 percent of men). Single mothers are much more willing to learn a new skill (85 percent) than to accept a job with lower pay (51 percent) or have a longer commute to work (55 percent).

So, while women did gain more jobs than men this month, these numbers are only one frame of an economy that is leaving many women unemployed—and possibly facing the expiration of their unemployment benefits. And, while job opportunities increased proportionally for women last month, it is also crucial to note that job growth remained quite slow for all. After all, the recovery should not be a competition between men and women. Rather, I hope that the recovery may lift our entire nation.

Caroline Hopper is a Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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