September 3, 2009 -- Women are on the verge of outnumbering men in the workforce for the first time, a historic reversal caused by long-term changes in women's roles and massive job losses for men during this recession.
Women held 49.83% of the nation's 132 million jobs in June and they're gaining the vast majority of jobs in the few sectors of the economy that are growing, according to the most recent numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That's a record high for a measure that's been growing steadily for decades and accelerating during the recession. At the current pace, women will become a majority of workers in October or November. The data for July will be released Friday.
"It was a long historical slog to get to this point," says labor economist Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
The change reflects the growing importance of women as wage earners, but it doesn't show full equality, Hartmann says. On average, women work fewer hours than men, hold more part-time jobs and earn 77% of what men make, she says. Men also still dominate higher-paying executive ranks.
Women have been a growing share of the once heavily male labor force for nearly a century, recording big bumps during epochal events such as the Depression and World War II.
This time, the boost came from a severe recession that has been brutal on male-dominated professions such as construction and manufacturing.
Through June, men have lost 74% of the 6.4 million jobs erased since the recession began in December 2007. Men have lost more than 3 million jobs in construction and manufacturing alone.
The only parts of the economy still growing — health care, education and government — have traditionally hired mostly women. That dominance has increased in part because federal stimulus funding directed money to education, health care and state and local governments.
The Postal Service is cutting tens of thousands of unionized, blue-collar jobs dominated by men while new hires are expanding in teaching and other fields dominated by college-educated women.
The gender transformation is especially remarkable in local government's 14.6 million-person workforce. Cities, schools, water authorities and other local jurisdictions have cut 86,000 men from payrolls during the recession — while adding 167,000 women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Unemployment among men isn't going to last forever," says University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan. "People will move from construction and manufacturing to industries that are creating new jobs." Mulligan expects the portion of jobs held by women to peak slightly above 50% this year, then drop below half when the economy recovers and more men find work.
Equality in workforce numbers reflects a long-term cultural change, says Maureen Honey, author of Creating Rosie the Riveter, a book about the government's campaign to persuade women to work outside the home during World War II. "The image that the man has to be the breadwinner has changed," Honey says.