Friday, October 16, 2009

When 50% Isn't Quite 50%

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

I can’t help it - that’s the line that runs through my head every time I read or hear yet another story heralding the much anticipated moment when women become 50% or more of the workforce. And just as Chicken Little was guilty of mistaking an acorn for part of the sky, almost all of the coverage of this so-called trend has failed to note one very important thing about this statistic: the numbers upon which this assertion is based don’t include the entire labor force. And the part they don’t include is predominantly male.

Labor statistics are drawn from two different sources – the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is a monthly survey of households (referred to as “Household Data”), and Current Employment Statistics (CES) program, which is a survey of nonfarm payroll employment from businesses and government agencies, also updated monthly (referred to as “Establishment Data”). By definition, the Current Employment Statistics excludes individuals who work in agricultural industries and anyone who is self-employed (or unemployed but looking for work). And therein lies the problem.

The CES is a count of payroll jobs only and provides an estimate the number of jobs lost and gained in specific industry segments (among other things). The estimate of the size of the employed labor force from the CES varies from the estimates from the other source of labor force data, the Current Population Survey (CPS), by as many as 8 million people (140 million by the CPS vs. 132 million by the CES). There’s a difference of 22 million if you include the entire labor force (including those unemployed but looking for work – which we’ve been told over and over again is predominantly male).

The statistics that show women closing in on 50% come from the CES – the establishment survey, which provides the smaller of the two numbers. Remember that this number excludes farm workers (farming, fishing and forestry occupations are 79% male according to CPS figures). Men also outnumber women in the number that are self-employed (men are approximately 66% of the total).

There are a couple of other challenges in using CES data to support the idea that women are on the verge of an earth-shattering accomplishment. One is that the payroll data from the CES double-counts people who have multiple jobs as there is no way to eliminate that from the way the data are reported. In the past, women have been more likely to have multiple jobs (they are 52% of multiple job holders based on CPS data), and therefore, there has been a tendency for the CES data to include an overcount of women in the labor force.

In addition, the pattern we’re seeing during this economic recession is typical of any period of economic retraction -- the tightening of the difference between men and women in the workforce based on payroll data -- is generally seen in periods of recession or economic slowdown - for all the same reasons as now. Construction and manufacturing, which are predominantly male, get hit first, while the lower paying jobs typically held by women are affected later. And let’s not forget that the jobs men are losing pay an average of $18 to $20 an hour and the service sector jobs held by many women pay under $10 (and are usually part-time and without benefits), so the fact that women aren't losing those jobs at the same rate as men isn't really good news for anyone.

While the commotion has made for interesting headlines and water-cooler conversations, it has also left a great deal of the story about the impact of the current economic climate on women untold, and certainly led some to believe that women were riding through the recession with limited pain. Such is certainly not been the case, as the rate of unemployment among female headed households has been skyrocketing (11% to 11.7% to 12.6% in the months preceding August) before starting to decline again in August and September (12.2% in Aug and 11.6% in Sept). And the labor force participation rate among women 65 years and older is the highest it's been since the Labor Dept started recording data – these are women who are being forced back into the work force by the loss of pensions and/or benefits. Finally, women have been hit hard with job losses in some industry sectors where they are typically paid pretty well - at one point 75% of the layoffs in the finance and insurance industry had been women when they only make up about 60% of the industry's workforce, out of line with the gender distribution.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I think that more women in the workforce is a bad thing – economists in fact have concluded that much of the global economic growth in the past several decades has been driven by the addition of women to the workforce ( But as RenĂ©e Loth noted in her recent Boston Globe op-ed (, in spite of those gains by women, the wage gap has stagnated, and women continue to find that their role as care-giver can cost them the opportunity for advancement and fair compensation (even in the most family-friendly companies). So if I’m not dancing a jig over the idea that women may take over the world of work, it’s because I’m not convinced such a change will have a lasting impact on the challenges women continue to face getting a fair shake on the job. Call me when women are 50% of the senior executives and CEOs, 50% of the board members, and 50% of the highest paid executives, and I’ll dance on the tables. Until then, though, let’s not mistake a single statistic for the coming of a new day. Sometimes a nut is really just a nut.
Bookmark and Share