The Recession's Hit Women Hard, but the Myth of the "Mancession" Won't Die

As an analysis, the myth of the “mancession” may have started out as an overly-stylized reading of labor market statistics. Men lost a larger share of jobs than women at the outset of the Great Recession in 2007, according to widely-reported Bureau of Labor Statistics measures tracking trends through spring 2009. This led University of Michigan economist and American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark J. Perry to conclude that there was a “historic” and “unprecedented” gender gap in unemployment favoring women by as much as two percentage points — a gap that actually has been closing more recently as cutbacks shift from the male-dominated construction and manufacturing sectors to education, human services, and other areas where women predominate.

But as an idea, the myth of the mancession has assumed a staying power beyond what those initial numbers appeared to support: it taps into larger cultural and economic anxieties that predate the Great Recession and that have to do with changing relations between men and women. This is revealed nowhere more powerfully than in the late, great passing of the “traditional” two-parent family, in which men could expect to be the chief — if not the solo — breadwinners.

Of course, there is rarely just one way to read statistical measures, and on these grounds alone the “mancession” has been subject to much dispute. More fine-grained analyses of the data, for example, show considerable differences in the impact of male job loss across lines of class, race, age, and region; not all men have been affected equally by the downturn, nor women for that matter, suggesting at the very least that there is more to the so-called gender gap than meets the eye. Nor has the Great Recession shown any “favor” to women when it comes to wage losses and poverty rates, both of which are on the rise. And historical experience reminds us that men have also lost the large majority of jobs in past recessions, as they did in the Great Depression, due to the fact that they are disproportionately represented in traditionally hard-hit and better-paying sectors of the economy. Indeed, one could use this observation to conclude that the gender gap in job loss reveals just how stratified the labor market remains, with nearly 90 percent of construction jobs held by men, and nearly 70 percent in manufacturing. The “mancession,” however, comes to a simpler, if misleading conclusion: men suffered far more from the Great Recession than women, and by the time we actually recover, they may find themselves even further behind. As characterized by Perry when he first started writing about the unemployment “gender gap,” what women were experiencing as a “downturn” was a “catastrophe” for men.

It is in taking this line that the myth of the “mancession” most clearly links up to a larger narrative that, in its starkest expressions, presents a story of female ascendancy and male decline. Indeed, news reports of the mancession almost invariably come wrapped up in a bundle of statistics suggesting that women are outdoing men in all sorts of other “historic” and “unprecedented” ways, from higher numbers of college and post-graduate degrees to larger shares of consumer spending and growing importance, if not yet outright leadership, as breadwinners in the household economy. Men, in the zero-sum logic that underlies the larger narrative, are losing out, not just in terms of relative economic position, but in the sense of authority and, well, manliness that once anchored their sense of identity.

The fearful, not to mention highly exaggerated, narrative of women’s looming economic and cultural dominance is hardly new. By invoking it, the myth of the mancession carries on a long tradition of more deeply rooted historical fictions that for decades were used to diminish or otherwise distort the significance of women’s participation in the paid labor force — and to defend the sanctity of the male breadwinner ideal. Until well into the twentieth century, these fictions mostly served as a form of willful ignorance, if not downright denial, treating women as at best temporary, non-essential workers without legitimate aspiration for better-paying, high-skilled jobs, let alone long-term careers. In formulations that still haunt us today, they treated African American and other minority female breadwinning as an expression of cultural pathology, a “matriarchy” that prevented men from taking their rightful roles as household heads. Such fictions persisted despite a similarly long tradition of social investigation documenting the realities — and the necessity — of female employment and household work. And they had real and lasting consequences: in well-documented government policies, union and private sector practices that denied women access to better job opportunities at equal pay; in decades of organized resistance to adequate child care provisions for parents in the paid labor force; in job training, employment, and social welfare programs that consistently favored male over female earnings capacity; and in a whole host of economic practices and cultural cues that sent women “back” to more traditionally subordinate positions in the wake of the unprecedented job opportunities that had been opened up by World War II.

The myth of the mancession may not take us back to the dark days of cultural denial, but its exaggerated claims echo the old stereotype-laden, zero-sum ways of thinking that pit the fortunes of female earners against those of men. In recent months, it has stirred a minor skirmish in the ongoing culture wars between feminists and the right. Echoing the idea that men were the chief victims of the Great Recession, AEI resident scholar and author of “The War Against Boys” Christina Hoff Sommers accused feminists of “skewing” President Obama’s initial stimulus plan by insisting on equal treatment for women, who in “mancession” logic did not need the jobs as much as men. Writing more recently on the AEI blog, Mark Perry similarly criticized the Obama National Economic Council for issuing its report on “Jobs and Economic Security for America’s Women” in the midst of what he now refers to as the “Great Mancession”, calling it “one-sided and misguided” to focus on women, when they are doing “so much better than men.”

If history is any guide, perpetuating the myth of the mancession could very well exact a price: not only in thwarting long overdue discussions of a jobs agenda that is fair and equitable across the board, but in preventing a more frank coming to terms with the cultural anxieties — and politics — that prevent us from articulating, and embracing, a more realistic, equitable, and genuinely shared breadwinner ideal. Given the challenges ahead, that’s a reckoning we can’t afford to put off.


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