As Women Lose Ground in Latest Round of Jobs Numbers, Can We Stop Talking About the "Mancession"?

Jennifer, a Pittsburgh public school teacher, is one of those women you remember from the best of your grade school days. She’s empathetic and enthusiastic. Her large brown eyes flash with keen intelligence. She loves her fourth-grade students, and laughs at the idea of ‘productivity experts’ coming in to tell her how to do her job and measure student progress. “Each child is different,” she insists. “How is an accountant going to measure a special needs student who gained the confidence to raise his hand in class this year?”

When our conversation turns to teachers and their job security, Jennifer’s face darkens. “We teachers — we call ourselves the ‘bottom-feeders’. Decisions are made all around us that we have no control over. Every time someone is laid off, we all put in more hours to make up the difference. It’s exhausting. And we never know who will be the next to go.” Jennifer has something to worry about. By the start of the next school year, she could very well be out of a job.

The term ‘mancession’ popped up in discussions of a 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics report that showed a greater job loss for men than for women at the outset of the Great Recession. Sensing cultural jitters over this finding, the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry seized the moment, drumming up outrage about an ‘unprecedented’ gender gap favoring women by 2 percentage points. Quelle horreur! On New Deal 2.0, historian Alice O’Connor challenged this conclusion, noting that the gap was already closing in 2010 as pink slips in manufacturing and male-dominated sectors slowed, while those in female-dominated professions like education and human services started coming fast and furious. In October 2010, O’Connor explained that the real picture of how how the downturn impacted men and women is far more complicated than Perry let on:

“More fine-grained analyses of the data… 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.”

Fast-forward to June 2011. The jobs report released last Friday makes one thing abundantly clear. The jobs crisis sucks for everyone. It sucks for men. It sucks for women. The suckage is particularly intense for young people and people of color, no matter what their gender. The Center for American Progress reports that May is the 23rd month of unemployment at or above 9 percent since the Great Recession began. This is more months of high unemployment of such magnitude than during any other recession going back to the Great Depression.

The jobs report also leaves no doubt that Perry’s suggestion that women have been simply sitting out the bad economy, paring their fingernails, is nonsense.

If you look at the BLS statistics over the last year, it’s obvious that while men were hit harder initially by the economic crash, they have experienced a bigger improvement as the economy has shown signs of life. Women were hit less hard initially, but their situation has showed little improvement. In fact, it’s gotten worse since last year. The report shows that in May 2010 civilian women over 20 had an unemployment rate of 7.8. One year later, that rate has risen 8.0. On the other hand, civilian men over 20 experienced a whopping 9.4 unemployment rate in May 2010, but that rate was down to 8.9 in May 2011.  The picture for women looks bleak in the short-term, too. In April, 2011, women over  20 had an unemployment rate of 7.9, but the rise in May to 8.0 shows that they are losing jobs, not gaining them. Some recovery!

It’s not difficult to understand why: Women are the shock-absorbers for government budget cuts. In May, the government axed 29,000 workers, with most of the decline coming from local governments. As the national debate has focused on deficit-reduction instead of the far wiser economic strategy of creating and maintaining jobs, state and local governments have let go 175,000 workers in six months. Teachers have been at the center of the budget storm, and 76% of public school teachers are women.

But it gets worse. State and local governments are poised for a round of record-breaking layoffs when the new fiscal year starts on July 1. Teachers and school employees will be ravaged by the layoff tsunami this summer as hundreds of thousands receive pink slips around the country. Human services workers and nurses are also likely to take a big hit.

With women feeling so much pain, can we finally put the mancession meme to rest? It does far more to divide working people than to explain our plight. And it doesn’t do right by Jennifer, who is wondering, after ten years as a public school teacher, why she feels like a bottom feeder.

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