Women have outnumbered men in non-farm payroll jobs since December — for only the second time in the history of the U.S. workforce.
Looking at jobs overall including the farm sector, men are still well above women. But economist Betsey Stevenson says the numbers speak to an ongoing, long-term trend of growing employment for women.
Women overtook non-farm jobs for the first time during the Great Recession. In 2009, working women surpassed men because men were losing their jobs much faster, says the professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan and member of former President Obama’s council of economic advisers.
But this time, Stevenson says the trend of faster employment growth for women that slowed during the 2001 and 2008 recessions is resurging. Women are going into different kinds of jobs, she says, including occupations stereotypically held by men.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth of women into jobs like construction,” she says. “So this isn't that the job growth is only happening where women tend to want to work, although that is definitely part of the story.”
Some of the fastest areas of job growth are in private-sector fields such as education and health services, where women hold more than 3/4 of jobs, she says.
Stevenson isn’t sure of exactly why women are taking so many jobs in fast-growing industries like health care, but women have historically held the majority of these “pink-collar” jobs.
People stereotypically perceive occupations like health care as caretaking jobs well-suited for women — which she believes is a mistake. Changing our perception of jobs that women tend to fill highlights that men can thrive in roles like teaching children important skills as a preschool teacher, she says.
“Instead of thinking about them as emphasizing the caring aspect of a home health care worker, we could think about emphasizing the physical task of a home health care worker, because that's a hard job,” she says. “That's not how we tend to think about those jobs. We tend to think about them as caregiving.”
The country is facing the challenge of whether more men will start applying for jobs in growing sectors like education and health care, she says. For decades, efforts to get men to take up occupations like nursing haven’t worked despite the country’s large demand for nurses, she says.
The U.S. has a service economy and that’s not going to change, she says. Manufacturing accounts for only about 8% of overall jobs, for example. To bridge the employment gap between men and women, she says we need to “restructure our image of the job” to make certain occupations appeal to a broader pool of workers.
Despite this growth in employment for women, wages in the service sector are not rising as fast as they have in the past for jobs dominated by men.
The U.S. has added an average of 188,000 jobs per month over the last two years with two-thirds going to women, she says — but since women earn less than men, wages haven’t grown as fast.
Stevenson warns of blaming this lack of wage growth on the country’s service economy. People think of service jobs as pouring coffee or cutting hair, but she says that’s a misconception.
For example, she says many service jobs in the U.S. entail highly educated workers creating apps and intellectual enhancements that make goods manufactured elsewhere, such as iPhones, work better.
“It's the advantage of our highly educated workforce with people who have smart, clever ideas that we are able to do more in terms of providing consulting services, professional and business services, health services, education services that are not all low-paying jobs,” she says. “Many of them are very high paying jobs.”
For the last decade, the U.S. economy has faced the fundamental question of why workers are getting a smaller share of what the country produces than in the past, she says.
On top of working more, women are some of the U.S. economy’s most skilled workers. Women are receiving more education than men and are the majority of college-educated workers, she says.
Families in the U.S. face an “underlying tension” because the economy and public policies don’t recognize that two-earner couples are now the norm, she says. To help families and workplaces thrive, she thinks employers and the government need to enact policies like paternity and maternity leave.
“People need to be able to take time off when they have kids,” she says. “There's not somebody at home that's going to cover. We haven't really wrestled with these things and it's putting a strain on families and it's putting a strain on work.”
When a recession inevitably hits the U.S. economy, Stevenson says the impact will depend on how it happens.
Last recession, men quickly lost jobs in sectors like construction and manufacturing, which pushed women into non-farm jobs. But job growth continued in education and health services because of the country’s aging population, she says.
Since the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, she believes people will continue to pay for their health care and demand services as they continue to age through a recession.
“What I would expect if we went into a recession is that on average, it's going to hit men and women equally,” she says. “And that means it's not going to knock women out of their place as the majority of non-farm payroll jobholders.”
This segment aired on March 6, 2020.