By Rita Savard
In a slowly recovering economy, a new trend shows men outpacing women in getting jobs, and they're doing it partly by taking work in sectors long dominated by the fairer sex.
Driving the growth is a large wave of men taking jobs in retail, an industry traditionally employed mostly by women, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The change, experts say, comes at a time when jobless men are looking outside their fields to find work in a tough market where there are still 4.5 times more unemployed people than there are U.S. job openings.
About 1.3 million men gained jobs in the 12 months ending in November, compared with 600,000 women. In that time, retailers have hired 216,900 men versus about 9,000 women.
Expiring unemployment benefits may also be pushing men into retail.
"Yes, more men are finding work again, but that doesn't necessarily spell good news," said Monica Galizzi, a professor at UMass Lowell who specializes in labor economics. "It shows that men who have been out of work for months and months are going to start knocking on a door that they traditionally have not, and often that means eventually having to accept lower-paying jobs."
The trend is a partial reversal of the recession of 2007 to 2009, when men experienced a much higher rate of job losses than women. The reason, analysts said, had less to do with gender equality than with where the ax was falling.
The proportion of women who were working at the time had changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of job losses hit men, who heavily represented distressed industries like construction and manufacturing.
Another explanation for the men's job growth may be that women began feeling the ax in their dominant sectors later in the downturn.
Other women-dominated sectors, like health care and education, were not as deeply affected in 2009, when the number of women with jobs became equal to men for the first time in U.S. history.
Now men are accounting for a growing proportion of jobs in the private education and health-care industries. Simultaneously, women are losing teaching and other local government jobs at a disproportionately high rate as municipalities cut back.
"There is a gender story here, but to truly see what it will mean in the big picture will take some time," said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a public-policy research and advocacy organization.
Women earn about 82 cents for every dollar their male counterparts do on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The labor market remains very gender-segregated," Boushey said. "Home health-aide work, nursing work, preschool teachers -- the reality is those jobs dominated by women also tend to pay less. So when men take those jobs, they experience the wage discrimination women have always faced in those industries."
Women, added Galizzi, might not be willing to take some of the same jobs men are applying for. Until seeing more data that tell the story of who is applying for which jobs versus who is getting the jobs, it's hard to say for sure, she said.
Another perspective is that many women are dropping out of the workforce to upgrade their skills. For the first time in three decades, more women are enrolled in college than men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Between 1999 and 2009, overall college enrollment increased by 38 percent, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million. Over that time, the number of enrolled females climbed by 40 percent compared to 35 percent for men.
Some analysts say that might give the next generation of women a significant advantage over men in the workforce.
Boushey poses a question: How do you measure the advantage?
"Do you measure equality by women holding 50 percent of the jobs, or women making the same pay for working the same hours?" Boushey said. "Those later two are just as important as who's working and who's not working."