The Truth About Men, Women and Work

The shrinking middle isn't just a class issue. It's becoming a gender issue too

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Illustration by Harry Campbell for TIME

First there was the mancession. Then there was the economic war on women. Over the past four years, the monthly jobs figures have been spun like a roulette wheel to declare which sex is gaining--or losing--from recession and recovery. April's numbers show that women gained 73% of the 115,000 new jobs added to the U.S. economy. Looks like we have a winner.

Or do we? The figures would seem to be welcome news for the Obama Administration, which has been battling accusations by Republican challenger Mitt Romney that the President's economic policies have hurt women. Yet since the recovery began in June 2009, women have gained only 16% of the new jobs created. What's more, over the past year or so, the workforce-participation rate of women ages 45 to 54 has "dropped like a stone," says Julia Coronado, chief North America economist at BNP Paribas. "Married, single-earner households are on the rise, and married women are increasingly choosing not to work, in part because many are finding that the jobs they can get simply aren't worth it in terms of pay, commute, hassle, etc."

Which goes directly to the problem with those seemingly great April numbers: most of that big job grab by women occurred in fast-growing but low-paying areas like temporary help, private education, and health, leisure and hospitality. Even in higher-end areas like professional and business services, where women made gains, 51% of the jobs they nabbed were temporary, vs. 27% for men. "Both women and men are gaining jobs in the private sector, but men are getting the more secure jobs," notes Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center. No wonder at least some married couples are deciding to live on one salary when the economic trade-off of lower-paying jobs, child-care costs, taxes and commuting doesn't add up.

The real problem for women is that they've suffered more casualties in the war on the public-sector workforce that the Republicans have egged on. Budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels of government--cuts that are at the core of the GOP's smaller-government mantra--amount to 601,000 lost public-sector jobs since June 2009. And two-thirds of those jobs were held by women. University of California, Berkeley, professor Laura Tyson, a former head of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, believes that's one big reason women over age 45 are leaving the workforce in droves. "If you've been a decently paid teacher or a public administrator or a welfare worker your whole life and you see what's available now, that might well make you leave the workforce." Not necessarily by choice, either. Women are now a greater percentage of the long-term unemployed than they were a couple of years ago.

The other thing that's hurt women has been, ironically, the thing that's helped men: the resurgence of manufacturing. When Detroit tanked, it produced a mancession, and so it's only natural that the recovery of factory jobs has disproportionately benefited men, who hold most of those jobs. Women represent only about 23% of workers in the durable-goods sector, for example, which includes things like automobiles and heavy machinery, and those are the American manufactured goods that have been doing best, thanks to the building and consumption boom in the emerging markets.

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