This is member-exclusive content
icon/ui/info filled

businessJobs

Last month’s job losses were the first since spring, and women accounted for all of ’em

Another sign of the pandemic’s uneven toll: Women had a net loss of 156,000 U.S. jobs in December while men added positions.

Last month, the U.S. economy lost jobs for the first time since April, a clear sign the deepening COVID-19 crisis is stalling the recovery.

But the topline number, a net decline of 140,000 nonfarm jobs in December, doesn’t tell an important part of the story: that more women than men are continuing to lose ground.

In December, men actually recorded a net gain of 16,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the smallest increase since the pandemic lockdowns ended last spring and companies began rehiring in May.

But women had a net loss of 156,000 positions in December, the first time since May 2011 that women lost jobs while men were adding them.

More important, women accounted for over half the jobs lost in 2020 — almost 5.2 million compared with 4.2 million jobs lost by men.

Women have always made up a smaller share of the workforce so their outsized impact is even more notable. And since COVID-19 arrived, more women than men are dropping out of the civilian labor force, probably because they’ve had to shoulder more caregiving duties for remote school and child care.

“The pandemic has exposed some critical disparities that actually were there before the pandemic,” said Susan McElroy, an associate economics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “It’s the same way that Hurricane Katrina made people more aware of abject poverty. The pandemic has made people more aware of some of these gender differences.”

The disparities are even more pronounced for women of color. Last month, the unemployment rate for Black women was 8.4%, and it was 9.1% for Latinas, according to the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. That compares with an unemployment rate of 5.7% for white women.

Over 20% of Black women and Latinas were working part-time when they wanted full-time jobs, and women also have been unemployed for longer than men.

One explanation is that women often hold more jobs in some of the hardest-hit sectors of the pandemic economy, such as leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants and hotels, and government, which includes public school teachers.

But it’s the type of job, not just the industry, that often makes the difference, McElroy said. At hotels, for example, housekeeping workers are usually women while men hold more management and financial positions, and it’s not surprising which ones go first.

“When there’s job loss, it’s likely women will be hit harder because they’re concentrated in the types of jobs that are more likely to be let go,” said McElroy, whose research topics include race, gender and inequality.

In December, women accounted for 91% of job losses in government, far more than their 57.5% share of the government workforce, the National Women’s Law Center reported. In leisure and hospitality, women lost a higher share of jobs, too.

In retail trade, which added 120,500 jobs in December, women landed 44% of the gains — 4 percentage points lower than their share of the retail trade workforce.

Some of the lagging figures may stem from racist, sexist or ageist attitudes that still exist among employers, said Jasmine Tucker, research director at the National Women’s Law Center.

“There are still assumptions about women working for spending money” or to supplement the family budget, she said. “If employers are going to choose between two people, they might choose to keep a dad because he’s probably the breadwinner, right?

“But women, especially women of color, are more likely to be breadwinners than ever before,” Tucker said.

The explanation has some historical support. In the past, McElroy said, companies would pay a higher wage to men for the same work and justify it by saying that men had to earn “a family wage.”

Big differences in unemployment rates also can be attributed to educational attainment, said Robert Kaplan, CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

In a virtual town hall meeting on Monday, Kaplan said unemployment rates for high school graduates were twice as high as for college grads. But pandemic pressures can cut through those distinctions.

“We’re seeing a meaningful drop in labor force participation for women with children,” Kaplan said. “Even if you’ve got a college degree, your participation has dropped because you’ve made the decision or been forced to make a decision to stay home. And this has cascaded down to women with a high school education or less.”

Almost 2.2 million women dropped out of the labor force last year compared with over 1.7 million men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s despite men in the labor force outnumbering women by over 9 million.

“As we come out of this pandemic, we’re going to really have our work cut out for us to get women back into the workforce,” Kaplan said. “It’s very critical that we’re able to get women’s participation rate up.”

Improving access to child care is essential, he said, and many workers without a college degree need more opportunities for education, training and certificate programs. Texas and the United States have an aging workforce, and the economy requires more workers to be more fully engaged.

“We’ll have better growth and we’ll have better prosperity and we’ll have a stronger economy,” Kaplan said.

Mitchell Schnurman, Business columnist. He covers a wide range of topics.

mschnurman@dallasnews.com @mitchschnurman
Business Briefing

Business Briefing

Become a business insider. Get the latest headlines delivered to your inbox every weekday.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy