In a reversal, job growth fades for women workers

Stephanie Brown, a single mother of a 2-year-old, was recently laid off as a bank teller in Lansing, Mich. Despite sending out a flurry of résumés, she's finding the hunt for a new job - especially one with benefits - difficult.

"It's been weeks, and I haven't had one bite on my résumé," says Ms Brown. "And I've got quite a lot of experience in office and clerical work."

Brown's predicament is part of a growing phenomenon in the American workforce: Job insecurity among women.

For decades, even in the worst of times, women continued to steadily join the workforce, catching up to men in terms of the percentage of the population with a full-time paycheck. But during the most recent downturn, more women left the workforce than came in for the first time in more than 40 years. One economist calls it the first equal-opportunity recession.

Now, as the economy recovers, the central question is whether job growth among women will pick up again and how quickly. That could help determine whether the number of women joining the workforce has finally peaked. At the least, structural changes in the economy seem to have made it just as difficult for women as for men to find a good job with benefits.

"Working women are telling us it's a much tougher job market now," says Karen Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO in Washington.

Part of the decline in women's job growth, of course, can be explained by simple demographics. As more women have entered the workforce, it's inevitable that the influx would plateau at some point: There are only so many women available to work.

But shifts in the economy have played a part as well. The US economy has moved away from male-dominated manufacturing toward service-sector jobs, where women have traditionally outnumbered men at the cash register and behind the counter. Consequently, when layoffs occur, they now can hit women hard.

And then there's the impact of 9/11. Economically, it hit the female-dominated travel and tourism industries harder than many others. So when it came time to issue pink slips, women got their fair share here, too.

Yet cultural forces are also contributing to the decline. Women have essentially shifted from the family's traditional homemakers into essential breadwinners. In many households, women now contribute a majority of the family income.

That means that when a recession occurs, many women no longer just drop out of the workforce as they used to. Most desperately try to find another job, which adds to the unemployment statistics: People not looking for work aren't counted on the official jobless rolls.

"Something has profoundly shifted," says Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "It's part of the simple fact that women are such an integral part of the economy now. They don't just drop out when they lose their jobs as they sometimes did in the past."

At least one facet of the decline in the female workforce is intentional. There is evidence that some women, particularly in the higher incomes, are opting out of the corporate fast track in favor of diapers and carpools.

Between 1997 and 2000, workplace participation among married women with a child less than one year of age dropped from 59 percent to 53 percent. Most of them were white, over 30, and well educated. But they represent a very small percentage of the female workforce.

An analysis of the most recent employment data done by Ms. Boushey shows most unemployed women are not out of a job by choice. Indeed, women without children lost as many jobs as did mothers with kids.

At the same time, real wage growth for both men and women has slowed significantly. The bottom line: Most women now work because they have to. And despite the recent up-tick in employment numbers, female jobs are returning at a far slower pace than after any recent recession. The overall number of women employed still remains down half a percent from March 2001, just before the economic boom turned to bust.

"In the past four recessions, women's employment had increased an average of 7.3 percent" by this time in the economic cycle, says Vicky Lovell, study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

A recent survey of working women done by the AFL-CIO found that 48 percent had some "personal experience" with job loss in the past year. This means that either they, someone in their family, or a friend were unemployed. "Ninety percent say it's difficult to find a job that pays well and provides benefits," says Ms. Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO.

That's certainly been the experience of Brown in Lansing, Mich. Her ideal would be to find a job that provides both healthcare and daycare, but she's not optimistic about that. "I graduated from high school 10 years ago. Then it was easy to find a job with benefits," she says. "Now not a lot of employers are offering them."

And that's added to an increasing feeling of insecurity among working women, according to the AFL-CIO survey. Ninety-two percent are worried about rising healthcare costs.

They're also concerned about losing other basic benefits, such as pensions and sick leave. For instance, 33 percent of low-wage working women didn't have paid sick leave in 2000; that jumped to 45 percent this year.

Some analysts believe that may be responsible in part for some of the drop in women's employment, particularly among lower-wage workers. Instead of opting out, Ellen Bravo, the director of 9to5, says many working women are being forced out of the workforce. "When you don't have paid sick pay, you lose a day's pay and you can also get disciplined, and if you get disciplined enough times, you get fired," says Ms. Bravo. "And that makes it all that much harder to get a good job the next time around."

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