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Recession hits male workers more

Men are getting laid off at a higher rate than women. One reason may be that male-dominated sectors such as construction, manufacturing and financial services have been hardest hit.

April 03, 2009|Greg Burns

It's a "he-cession" out there and, man, it's brutal.

Today's government employment report is expected to bring bad news about job losses in a tough economy. The pain will be worse, however, for one gender more than the other.

To a much greater extent than in past recessions, men are bearing the brunt.

In December 2007, when the economy started tanking, unemployment ran nearly even at 4.4% for men and 4.3% for women. In February, that tally had shot up to 8.8% for men and 7.3% for women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The 1.5-point spread is historic and likely to widen as the overall numbers keep soaring, said Mark Perry, an economist at the University of Michigan in Flint. "I don't see it turning yet."

Job losses in March could be much higher than the consensus forecast of 658,000, Brian Wesbury at First Trust Advisors said. Given shrinking consumption and high inventories, the job market will take longer than usual to recover -- for men more than women, he predicted.

Why the big split between the genders? A bona fide "man-cession" invites all sorts of social theories: Maybe women are cheaper to keep on the payroll because they tend to make less. Maybe women are better communicators, which helps shield them from the ax. Maybe women feel they have more to prove, so they get retained for trying harder.

To hear economist Perry tell it, two factors far outweigh those theories.

This recession started with a crash in the housing market, and construction is about as male-dominated as it gets: 88%, Perry says. Manufacturing also took a dive: It's 70% male. The male bastions of the financial-service sector got whacked too: Testosterone-heavy trading desks ain't what they used to be, post credit crunch.

Meanwhile, practically the only major sectors holding their own are education and healthcare, which run 77% female combined. "Those differences account for quite a bit of it," Perry said.

The other big difference: higher education.

Since 1981, women have earned far more bachelor's degrees, collecting 135 for every 100 awarded to men, Perry said. At the master's level, the "degree gap" is an even wider 150 to 100. Because unemployment among college graduates stands at 4.1%, less than half the rate of high-school grads, those sheepskins count.

And with so many more men getting pink slips -- a misnomer, these days -- women will make up a rising share of the labor force.

Counting farm labor and the self-employed, working men outnumber women by about 10 million. It's not 50-50, but it's moving that way.

So with women making such dramatic gains, their numbers in business leadership must be skyrocketing too, right? Yeah, right.

For more than a decade, the Chicago Network has tallied local movers and shakers by gender, and the needle has essentially gone nowhere. The nonprofit research group Catalyst has found much the same on a national level.

"For reasons that are subjective," said Network leader Amy Osler, "it's like climbing straight up an ice mountain."

All that higher education and the economic devastation of traditional male strongholds won't make much difference in cracking a "really prevalent" glass ceiling, said Jenny Hoobler, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Business Administration.

"As far as leadership, it doesn't translate," Hoobler said. "Women don't ascend to the top ranks."

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Burns writes for Tribune newspapers

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