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Women's share of jobs slipping

Once poised to become a majority of the workforce, women haven't found as many jobs as men during the recovery. But some signs point to an eventual rebound.

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During most of the postwar recessions, women made job gains. Their employment numbers rose an average 0.4 percent during each of the eight economic downturns prior to 1990, the US Department of Labor says. After the shallow recession of the early 2000s, where women's unemployment rate mirrored that of their male counterparts, women were thought to have "opted out" of work.

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"What really was going on was that women lost more jobs than they had in the previous recessions, and job growth in the 2000s was weak by historical terms," says Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington.

Not everyone thinks women are poised to become a majority in the workforce. The Labor Department projects that they will account for 46.9 percent of the labor force by 2018.

"I do believe men will go back to [being] the majority of the workforce," says Heidi Hart­mann, president of the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. "They do that because they take less time to manage families."

Even if women become the majority of the US workforce, other challenges remain.

"I don't think we should focus on labor force participation as a magic number," says Olga Shurchkov, a professor of economics at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. "It really matters more what kind of jobs women have access to and how they can progress in those jobs over time."

The so-called Millennials (under age 29) could be a linchpin of change. Young women's desire to advance and have high-powered careers is now equal to that of men, regardless of the woman's parenting status, according to a 2008 study by the Families and Work Institute, a New York research organization. As women seek higher-powered careers, they're more apt to become better negotiators of higher salaries.

In addition, young men, particularly those raised by working mothers, have a new attitude. The study shows that young men are more likely to believe women can work and be good mothers at the same time. Male Millennials now spend more time engaged in home- and child-care tasks than their fathers did.

Perhaps most telling, they also suffer higher levels of angst over work-life balance.

"As women become more involved as breadwinners, men become more involved as breadmakers," says Dycht­wald. "We see the early signs of that all around us."