Women’s employment rates may mirror previous economic tough times

By Katy Snyder
JVA Communications/Resource Associate

According to a recent NPR report, unemployment could reach nine percent this year. While it would seem that unemployment would affect men and women equally, a recent New York Times article says that in the current recession, women will surpass men in the workforce as more men are laid off and more women are forced to work to support their families.

rosie3Looking at past economic tough times can shed some light on how women have fared during these times. An Encarta article says women actually saw their rates of employment rise during the great depression because of the segregation between “men’s work” and women’s work.” While husbands lost their jobs, women who had not worked in the past needed to find work to support their families and found jobs in fields such as teaching and clerical work, fields that were considered feminine and also were more recession-proof.

During World War II, women also entered the workforce in record numbers, this time taking jobs in fields such as arms manufacturing that had traditionally been male-dominated. The government even began to market women joining the workforce as the patriotic thing to do through iconic images like Rosie the Riveter. During World War II, however, there was a swell of new jobs that were created by the need for weapons and goods to ship to American troops stationed overseas, and many jobs were left vacant by men who had been called up to fight. After both the Great Depression and World War II, women lost much of the ground that they gained as men returned and found work, and women (at least middle- and upper-class women) were relegated back to their role as housewives.

Surprisingly, some of the forces that made it easier for women to work during World War II and the Great Depression are still at work today. Although gender roles have blurred considerably in the 89 years since the Great Depression, some jobs still seem to follow gender lines. According to the Times article mentioned above, women may soon make up a majority of the American workforce because the job fields dominated by women tend to be those that are recession-proof, such as education and health care.

According to the article, 82 percent of those recently laid off have been men. Another disparity that has remained since the Great Depression is the fact that women are still paid significantly less than men for the same work (80 cents to the dollar, according to the Times article) and the sectors that they work in are often on the low-paying end of the spectrum, such as domestic work and childcare. Women are more likely to be employed part time, in jobs that do not give benefits. In addition, women are still saddled with the “double burden” of employment and disproportionate shares of housework, much as they were in the 1930s and 1940s.

These factors combined make it likely that as in previous tough times, women will leave jobs that they acquire during the recession once the economy rebounds and their spouses return to work.

As an organization that was founded by women who had recently entered the workplace after having children, JVA Consulting is very interested in this topic. If there is a topic about women and the workplace that you would like to see us write more about, leave a comment on this article and we’ll blog about it in an upcoming post.

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