How Tough Times Are Helping Women Get Ahead

Women are better poised for the jobs of the future.

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Ten years ago, the unemployment rate for men and women was the same. At the end of 2007, when the recession began, the rate for men was two-tenths of a percentage point higher. Today, the unemployment rate for men is a full percentage point higher than it is for women.

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The recession and its aftermath have been a setback for many, but women seem to be recovering far faster than men. And as jobs return in some industries but languish in others, women are poised to enjoy an outsized participation in the recovery.

The strains on working moms are as great as ever, with more women anchoring the household finances thanks to unemployment and pay cuts among the traditional breadwinners. And there's still a pay gap between the sexes, with women earning just two-thirds as much as men. But the slow pace of catch-up has accelerated over the last few years, and trends suggest that faster gains could continue for a while. Women are less vulnerable to the weakest parts of the economy and tend to have better education and more relevant skills than men, which will give them increasing economic clout over the next several years. "Women will increasingly drive consumer spending," predicts Bank of America Merrill Lynch in a recent note to clients.

Women typically fare a bit better than men during recessions because they tend to work in fields like healthcare and education that don't lose as many jobs. That pattern intensified during the deep downturn that lasted from late 2007 to the middle of 2009. The two industries losing the most jobs were manufacturing and construction, both dominated by men. Those industries are still far below pre-recession job levels. Manufacturing has flattened out, but barely started to add jobs again, while construction employment continues to fall. Together, the two industries amount for more than half of the 7.7 million jobs lost since the recession began. The vast majority of those displaced workers are men.

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The gap between the male and female unemployment rate at the moment is mild compared to what it was during the depths of the recession. Today, the unemployment rate is 9.5 percent for men and 8.5 percent for women. But in October 2009, the unemployment rate was 11.4 percent for men and just 8.7 percent for women—the biggest gap in modern times, by far.

Women are now getting ahead partly because men aren't. Jobs in general are returning very slowly, with many manufacturing jobs probably lost for good, as companies send more work overseas and construction jobs are closely tied to the housing sector, which remains in a profound funk and could take years to recover. Women also seem better positioned for the jobs of the future, which will require fewer physical skills, but more advanced education and better facility with information and technology.

Women are slightly better educated than men, for instance, earning more than their share of college degrees over the last decade. They're increasingly going into lucrative fields like engineering and accounting that they once shunned. And many of the fastest-growing occupations—such as nursing and other healthcare fields, customer service, and retail—are widely open to women, if not dominated by them. Women are also getting married later and staying in the workforce longer before starting families, which adds to their economic power. Some women stay in the workforce even while they raise families, of course, which might raise their blood pressure a few notches, although it raises economic visibility, too.

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More education and better workplace credentials ultimately lead to higher pay—which is exactly what has been happening. B of A Merrill Lynch says that median income for women, after inflation, has risen by about 1 percent per year for the last five years. Women even eked out an income gain during the recession, when overall pay fell. Pay for men, by contrast, has fallen about 1.5 percent annually over the last five years, and a huge oversupply of workers in some male-dominated fields will probably sustain downward pressure on wages.

Men still call the shots in many boardrooms, and corporate America is hardly bathed in pink all of a sudden. But as women corner better jobs, earn more money, and compete on equal footing with men, they could end up being more prominent decision makers about how money gets spent and even become a force that might help boost the economy. It might still be a man's world, but women have a lot more to say about how it's run.

Twitter: @rickjnewman.