Jobs and the Battle of the Sexes

It wasn't long ago that we were talking about the "man-cession," or the idea that men were being hit by the recession much harder than women. "For a recession to have had such a disproportionate effect on one gender has never before happened in the modern period," economist Mark Perry said in 2010, referring to men.

But last week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney noted that 92% of jobs lost during Barack Obama's presidency have been lost by women.

Who's right? Both, it turns out.

It all depends on what date you use as a starting point. Men lost jobs much faster than women early on in the recession. Then, as male job losses leveled off and actually turned into gains, female jobs kept falling and only recently began inching up.

Here's how it looks since the recession began in December 2007 (the vertical line marks when President Obama entered office):


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From December 2007 through March 2012, male employment is down 4.7%, while female employment is down 2.8%. But since January 2009, male employment is down just 0.1%, while female employment is down about 1%.

Males, therefore, still have fared worse than their better halves during the recession. But their prospects for recovery in recent months and years have turned decidedly better than female's. As I noted earlier this month, 88% of new jobs since the recession ended in mid-2009 have gone to men, and the share of men claiming the economy is improving is now 41%, compared with 26% for females.

What gives? Recessions almost always work this way. Male jobs fell five times as hard as women's during the 2001 recession, but then bounced back far faster. During the 1991 recession, male jobs fell modestly while female employment actually rose, but male jobs then rebounded sharply.

The reason is usually the type of jobs being cut throughout the lifecycle of a recession. "I think that the recession has happened in stages," said Stanford labor economist Myra Strober last year. "The first stage hit manufacturing hard, and that's where men have more jobs than women do, and now the recession has moved to state and local government where women have a higher percentage of jobs."

Nearly 60% of all job losses during the recession came from the manufacturing and construction sectors -- both heavily male-dominated fields. They're also the kind of fields where employment is now rebounding the fastest. Manufacturing employment has increased by 400,000 since 2009, and oil and gas employment has shot up to the highest level in two decades. Both disproportionately benefit men. Meanwhile, government jobs declined for most of the last two years and only recently began stabilizing. That, as Strober points out, hurts women more than men.

In the long term, however, females are not only catching up, but surpassing males in the job market. Female nonfarm payroll employment briefly surpassed male employment in 2009 for the first time ever. That shift has been staggering: As recently as 2000, male workers outnumbered females by more than 5 million. In 1964, males had the lead by 21 million.

Much of the rise in female employment is due to social changes as the marriage rate declines and married households take on dual-income roles. But part is due to education. "Women were earning about 166 associates degrees and 135 bachelor's degrees for every 100 earned by men in 2007," TheWall Street Journal reported, citing data from the Department of Education. Last year, women surpassed men in graduate degrees as well. For adults over age 25, 10.6 million women now have a master's degrees or higher, versus 10.5 million for men.

That's really the key to employment, both today and going forward. The unemployment rate for those with a college degree is 4.2%. For those with only a high-school diploma, it's 8%. For those who didn't complete high school, it's 12.6%. And not only do educated workers have an easier time obtaining jobs, but they earn considerably more than those without a degree. According to economist Tyler Cowan, college grads earn 83% more on average than high school graduates. That gap will likely grow as the economy continues shifting from low-skill industry-based jobs to advanced information-based fields. And women, it seems, will benefit the most.

Long live the man-cession.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.

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