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Infographic: The Importance of Women Breadwinners

The Chrysler bankruptcy highlights layoffs among male manufacturing and retail workers, such as car salesmen, notes Heather Boushey in an analysis of recent unemployment data.

The news is only getting worse for families who rely on two paychecks to make ends meet. Today’s decision by embattled Chrysler Corp. to seek bankruptcy protection could throw thousands of employees out of work in the coming weeks and months as the company’s auto plants and especially its car dealerships are forced to close up shop. The loss of jobs at these male-dominated manufacturing and retail businesses means the paychecks of women in families will only grow in importance—a trend that is already gaining speed in communities large and small across our country.


In millions of families across the United States, a woman is now the primary breadwinner because her husband has lost his job. As of February 2009 (the latest data available), women made up nearly half the labor force: 49.6 percent of all workers employed in the United States are women, up from a third (36.5 percent) in February 1973.

Women are now a greater share of those employed because the industries where men predominate have been hemorrhaging jobs. Between December 2007, when the recession began, and February 2009 (the latest data available) men have lost 76.7 percent of all nonfarm jobs and 73.5 percent of all private-sector jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Establishment Survey (a survey of employers conducted each month by the BLS). The share of men with a job is lower than it has ever been before, with only 68.2 percent of adult men at work. And the employment level of men is only 95.2 percent of where it was in December 2007.

The recession is playing out differently by gender because men and women tend to work in very different industries and occupation. The accompanying interactive chart shows that women especially predominate in financial activities—mostly because they are the majority of real estate agents, not because they are the majority of bankers—as well as in government, education, and health. Men especially predominate in transportation, construction, and manufacturing, but also in certain retail professions, such as the sale of automobiles and electronic appliances.

Larger job losses among men have occurred because the recession is hitting traditionally male working-class jobs, even though the crisis is being prolonged by the financial sector’s troubles. Looking at the interactive chart, the industries where men hold the most jobs have seen the largest job losses. While the economy has shed 3.2 percent of all jobs as of February 2009, manufacturing has lost 9.5 percent of its jobs, construction has lost 12.3 percent of its jobs, and professional and business services has lost 6.0 percent (two-thirds of which have been temporary help workers). The financial activities industry has shed only 4.0 percent of its jobs, even though the crisis in this industry continues.

Half of the job losses during this recession so far have occurred in either construction or manufacturing. Of the total jobs lost, 29.2 percent were lost in manufacturing and 20.7 percent in construction. Another 24.2 percent of the total job losses have occurred in professional and business services, mostly among temporary workers. Even though it is the financial sector which is driving the economic crisis, the financial activities industry only accounts for 7.4 percent of the jobs lost so far in this recession.

Yet it is not just that men work in industries hardest hit by the recession. Within a number of hard-hit industries, men are also losing a disproportionate share of the jobs. For example, within retail, although men accounted for half (49.8 percent) of all workers at the beginning of the recession, they held two-thirds (64.5 percent) of the jobs lost. In finance and insurance, men accounted for over a third (36.7 percent) of the jobs at the beginning of the recession, but have lost half (50.6 percent) of the jobs.

It is not unique for blue-collar workers to bear the brunt of job losses in a recession. What is notable in this recession is that while manufacturing and construction accounted for a larger share of total job losses than in prior recessions, the industries that are seeing jobs gains—education and health and government—are seeing smaller gains than during prior recessions. This does not bode well for women’s jobs moving forward, since women are concentrated in these industries.

Notably, during the 1980s recession—when the unemployment rate went above 10 percent—women actually gained jobs on net because of continued hiring in women-dominated industries. Clearly, that is not the case during the current recession: Women’s employment is already 98.5 percent of its level in December 2007.

The recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was a down payment on job creation. The Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus will save or create about 3.5 million jobs, according to the Council of Economic Advisors. Many of those will be in state and local government, education, and health, and some will be in construction, manufacturing, and other associated industries since about one in eight dollars of the recovery package is going toward “shovel ready” projects and infrastructure investments.

The labor market has yet to see signs of improvement—most recently, the data released for March show a record rate of mass layoffs—but hopefully the investments made through the recovery package will keep people at work and get others back on the job in the months to come. Still, the demise of Chrysler—with all the knock-on effects among its dealerships and parts suppliers—will only add to the unemployment rolls over the course of this year.

That means more and more women in millions of families across the United States will be supporting their families. In the typical dual-earner family, a woman brings home a little over a third (35.6 percent) of her total family income. When her husband loses his job, the family must make due on her earnings alone—and quite possibly without his health insurance.

Ensuring that every woman earns a fair day’s pay could not be a more pressing issue for families. A good—and fast—place to start would be for the Obama administration to devote its efforts to simply enforcing the laws already on the books and implementing better monitoring of equal pay. That would be a down payment to help families make ends meet while the labor market is getting back on track.

Heather Boushey is Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress. To read more of her analysis and policy recommendations, please go to the Economy page and the Women’s Rights and Health page of our website.

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Heather Boushey

Former Senior Fellow