The terrible bottom line of Friday’s job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (B.L.S.) did not surprise many people – there were many fewer jobs in December 2008 than in the prior month.
Much less noticed, however, was Friday’s breakdown by sex of employment declines prior to December. Is it possible that one legacy of this recession is that women become a majority of the workforce for the first time in American history?
Years ago, women were a small minority of the workforce (outside the home). During much of the twentieth century – especially the 1970s and 1980s – women increased their share. By 1990, the workforce was 47 percent female and 53 percent male, according to the B.L.S. Many view this as one of the most important and desirable social and economic transformations of our lifetimes.
Until this recession, women throughout the 1990s and 2000s remained less than 49 percent of the workforce. However, that percentage has now passed 49 percent and may cross the 50 percent threshold for the first time.
In November 2008, the female workforce shrank more in percentage terms than it ever has in any one month – and more than ever over any single year – since 1964, if not longer. Nevertheless, female workforce reductions so far in this recession are smaller than those for the male workforce – even when measured in percentage terms – as has been the case in previous recessions.
The table below displays calculations for three recessions – 1990-91, 2001, and today. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recessions began in July 1990, March 2001, and December 2007, respectively. The first two ended in March 1991 and November 2001. Two notes: First, nobody knows when this recession will end, and second, the most recent data for which the B.L.S. reports employment by sex is November 2008.
During the first recession, male employment fell by 2.0 percent, while female employment hardly fell at all (less than 0.05 percent). In the other two recessions, the percentage employment loss for men exceeded that for women by a factor of 3 to 5 (interestingly, although women still have a small minority of each recession’s employment decline, the female share of the decline has increased from one recession to the next, indicating that women’s jobs have become more sensitive to changes in the business cycle).
The bottom of the table shows how, as a result of the larger male jobs losses, recessions have increased women’s percentage of the work force by about 0.5 in recent recessions. For example, the 0.5 percentage point increase that occurred in the eight months of the 1990-91 recession is more than occurred for the ten years that followed, or in the six years that followed the 2001 recession.
If the pundits are right that this recession will be long and severe, then women may gain the 0.9 percentage points from November 2008 that would push them past the 50 percent milestone. Important milestones will remain to be achieved, but women’s surpassing 50 percent of employment is something that historians will note for years to come.