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Economic Recovery: Women Bouncing Back Quicker Than Men?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later, we'll hear from the author of a new book called "Coolie Woman." She actually managed to figure out how and why her great-grandmother left a small village in India in 1903 to work as an indentured servant in the Caribbean, joining as many as 300,000 other Indian women. That's coming up.

But first, there are some surprising new numbers about women in the workforce in this country right now. Now the economy is still digging out of recession and trying to build back the momentum and lost jobs, but new numbers say women are ahead of men when it comes to recovering those lost jobs. In fact, a record number of women are working now - 67.5 million up from the peak prior - the prior peak of 67.4 million in 2008. That - in contrast, 69 million men currently have jobs. That's below the high of 70.9 million in June of 2007. Now that's all according to an analysis of Labor Department figures by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. We're joined now by Ariane Hegewisch. She is an economist at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. And she's joining us by phone from Charleston, West Virginia. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: Thanks so much for having me on the program.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called once again NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax, here with us at our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us once again.


MARTIN: So, Ariane, let me start with you. According to the numbers, women have made up all of the 2.7 million jobs they lost during the recession. What does that mean?

HEGEWISCH: Well, it means that in the sectors where women tend to work, job growth has been faster than in the sectors that - where men tend to work. It doesn't mean necessarily that women are doing exactly the same jobs as before the recession started.

MARTIN: So, Marilyn, pick up the ball here. So it doesn't mean that every woman who wants a job has one.

GEEWAX: Right. We still have very high levels of unemployment. Nationally, it's about 7.3 percent unemployment, and that's terrible. That's a lousy number. For women, it's about 6.4 percent. So women are doing better than the population as a whole. But, you know, it's really that women are concentrated in a lot of these sectors - retail, health care, a lot of women working in elder care jobs. So these are the things that have really kind of bounced back more than construction jobs, for example. I mean, construction's coming back somewhat, but the real growth that we've seen recently has been in retail and health care work.

MARTIN: So is the labor market still that segregated? I mean, I think some people will remember that, you know, classified ads or job wanted ads used to explicitly say, men, women. That's not legal anymore. But as a matter of fact, Marilyn...


MARTIN: ...The job market still is pretty segregated.

GEEWAX: It's kind of amazing. I looked at numbers from 1983, how many women were in construction, and it was 2.6 percent. You come 30 years later, it's 2.6 percent. You know, basically, there's just been no movement in getting women into construction jobs, even though those tend to pay more. Women are really still put in - put themselves, in many cases - but also, you know, it's just where women gravitate. It's those hands-on caretaking jobs or retail jobs that disproportionately attract women.

And a lot of that I think is probably related to flexible hours. You know, when you look at statistics about multigenerational households, there are an awful lot of women - millions and millions of women out there - who are taking care of either children or elderly parents or in many cases, both. So they need to have those kinds of flexible hours that you can get when you work at a restaurant, which might mean you're working - you may even be working a full-time 40-hour job, but you're working in the evening or on Saturday night. So in ways that you can make your household work a little bit better by taking those more flexible hours that are offered in those kinds of jobs.

MARTIN: Ariane, do you have anything to add to that?

HEGEWISCH: Yeah. I do think people do need more workable hours in terms of family responsibility. But a lot of the jobs that are growing, so in restaurants or so, the flexibility they offer isn't really very good for, you know, people with current commitments. So if one of the - and as I said, the jobs after the recession sometimes are a bit different or have gotten worse than what they were before the recession. So if you take restaurants, one of the big problems actually for women - and I guess men with family responsibilities - is that often, there aren't any reliable hours. So you might come in and, you know, and say, OK, you have to be available for 10 hours, but it's until end of business.

So one day you might have three hours, the next day you might be expected to stay for 12 hours. So really, those type of jobs aren't necessarily that good. And the - you know, it's not that - I don't think that looking for flexibility is the main reason that explains job segregation.

MARTIN: I still want to refocus, though, on just the kind of the bigger picture question, which is the original subject, which is why is it that - at least according to the numbers in terms of getting a job and having a job at present - why women are doing better than men during this, you know, kind of interesting kind of period of slow...


MARTIN: ...Economic recovery. In fact, the new data shows - and if you're just joining us, there's new data that say that women - more women are actually working now than ever before. And women have made up all the jobs lost during the recent recession, whereas men have not. So first of all, can we just ask - and, Marilyn, why is it that these areas, these fields, are doing better? Why are there more jobs in these fields?

GEEWAX: Well, you know, the jobs that you have to add in the United States are those that are very hands-on and location-based. That is, you know, you can send a manufacturing job to another country. You may set up a factory in China, but you can't very well ship your grandmother off to China. You need to actually hire a home health aide here in this country. So when the economy perks up and people have more money to spend, they often spend it on things like restaurant meals, housecleaning services, more help for taking care of mom. You know, the kinds of jobs that are location-based, and they can't easily be automated.

There's not a robot that you can send in to take care of your mom. So those are the jobs that when the economy does perk up - and it has perked up. I mean, we've got 2.8 percent growth, so there are people out there who are making money. Certainly, the more affluent people have done better in this recovery. And they are doing things like taking vacations, and so they want restaurant meals, and they want their bathroom cleaned. So those kinds of jobs are doing better relatively than, say, more home construction, which there's still a lag in construction hiring for men.

MARTIN: Ariane, one other interesting detail that I saw in your report, which is that women are not doing as well as men within the fields that are doing well. That within those areas that we've just been talking about, men are doing - are proportionately gaining more jobs. Do I have that right?

HEGEWISCH: Yes, absolutely. And it's interesting. You know, one of the sectors that also has grown - one of the better sectors - are professional and business services. And they're something like two-thirds of the job - not two-thirds, one-third more of the jobs are going to men than to women. And we don't really quite know why. You know, estimates show that the job market is very segregated. So it might be that men are going back into the fields where they worked before, in, we know, banking, retail, banking, for example, where a lot of women work has kind of really shrunk over the last few years. But it might also be discrimination. You know, that people think, well, we know it was a men-cession and, you know, OK. So really, maybe the guy needs the job more. We just don't know. We know that where you work - whether you work in health care or trade and transportation - makes a big difference in terms of the overall job opportunities. But why it is that within those sectors women are gaining fewer jobs than men, we don't quite know.

MARTIN: Are there any other takeaways from this new data looking forward? I was curious - I mean, at first I was curious whether you were surprised by this. And are there any other issues that you would want to highlight about it that - I think it may be surprising to many people even if it kind of makes some sort of intuitive sense.

HEGEWISCH: I - you know, for me, the recession really threw into focus the fact that men and women often still do different work. And the extent of it, I think, even surprised me, although I've worked on this for the last 30 years or so. And really, in the '80s, we kind of thought things would integrate, and, you know, women were getting into the same education, becoming more educated, moving into different fields. And then, from the end of the '90s onwards, really, the segregation got stuck. And so even if you look at something like retail jobs, you know, where men and women overall are equally likely to work, men are more likely to work in car sales, and women are more likely to work in cosmetic sales, and guess where you earn greater commission.


HEGEWISCH: You know, or if you look at manufacturing, actually, men have regained the jobs that were lost in manufacturing, and women haven't yet because they are in different parts of the manufacturing sector. So I think really, if you think how far we've come with equality, the fact that, on the job front, so much got stuck and we lost kind of the, you know, the impetus from the '80s - that, really, I still find surprising.

MARTIN: Marilyn, final thought from you?

GEEWAX: Well, when you look at wage data, you can see how this all separates out. White men typical earnings are around $900 a week, and for white women, it's only about $700 a week. But then you look at minorities. Black women make about $600 and Hispanic women around $500. So you've really got a very, you know, segregated labor force in terms of earnings. And, you know, there are just all sorts of reasons for that. But it's still, you know, all these years of talking about how we can end job discrimination or get people to, you know, integrate the workforce in different ways. We still see a lot of wage separation where people really earn different amounts of money, and you can pretty well predict that based on race, gender and certainly education is the big thing.

MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is senior business editor here at NPR. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ariane Hegewisch is a study director with the Institute for Women's Policy Research, and she was kind enough to join us by phone from her home office. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GEEWAX: Good to be here.

HEGEWISCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.