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Women Are Taking Over the Fastest-Growing Jobs

Men simply aren't working in the service sector -- even though they're still making more.

Women's work.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

For a few months in late 2009 and early 2010, just as the Great Recession began to give way to a fitful recovery, nonfarm employers in the U.S. reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that they had more women working for them than men. This had never happened before. It hasn't happened since, either, but the nonfarm payroll employment totals for men and women (74.6 million versus 73.2 million in January) remain much closer together than they were before the recession. If past trends are any guide, in fact, it seems likely that women's share of payroll employment will pass the 50 percent line during the next recession and stay there for good.

Just About Equal

Nonfarm payroll employment, seasonally adjusted

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

This data is from what's called the establishment survey, the one that showed 200,000 payroll jobs to have been created in January. The other big source of monthly employment data -- the household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived -- still counts 82.3 million men with jobs to only 72.2 million women.

Different Surveys, Different Ratios

Women's share of employment

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Why do the surveys give such different results? Let me count the reasons:

  1. The establishment survey doesn't include farms while the household survey does, and in 2017, about three-quarters of farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers were men.
  2. The establishment survey doesn't include the self-employed while the household survey does, and men also greatly outnumber women among the self-employed.
  3. The establishment survey double-counts people with multiple jobs, and more women than men report holding multiple jobs.
  4. People working as independent contractors or off the books usually don't show up in the establishment surveys. The last time the BLS counted the number of independent contractors, in 2005, 1 about two-thirds were men, and while there's no formal count of off-the-books workers, it seems likely that many are in male-dominated fields such as construction.

Most of the differences between the two surveys, then, have to do with the different sorts of jobs that men and women do. 2 Here's women's share of employment in 2017 in the broad occupational categories tracked by the BLS in the household survey:

The Jobs Women Do (and Don't)

Women's share of employment by occupational category, 2017

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Another way of slicing things is by the industries people work in, which are tracked in the establishment survey.

The Industries Women Work In (and Don't)

Women's share of employment by sector, January 2018

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Men are still in the majority in most of the bureau's industry "supersectors," but those tend to be the smaller and slower-growing ones. Overall, women hold 22 percent of the jobs in goods-producing sectors, and 54 percent of the jobs in service-providing sectors -- and the service-providing sectors have gone from around 60 percent of payroll jobs in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s 3 to 86 percent now.

So women are overrepresented in the parts of the economy that are growing faster. They are also, as my Bloomberg View colleague Tyler Cowen wrote recently, taking a bigger and bigger share 4 of the economy's "cognitive" jobs, which tend to be the better ones. And overall, the numbers appear to show that indoor salary and wage labor in the U.S. is becoming predominantly women's work.

Women still usually don't hold the highest-status jobs, though. Men accounted for 60 percent of physicians and surgeons in 2017, 63 percent of lawyers, 70 percent of producers and directors, 72 percent of chief executive officers, and 81 percent of software developers. Men also make more money than women do -- and women haven't gained any ground on that front since the end of the last recession:

Still Not Making as Much

Women's median usual weekly earnings as a percentage of men's*

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

*Among full-time wage and salary workers

Much of this earnings disparity can be chalked up to choice -- women choose different occupations than men, and once in them are less likely to opt for a work-all-the-time, no-interruption career track than men are. But that doesn't explain all of the gap. Meanwhile, much of men's shrinking share of payroll employment can be chalked up to choice -- men could go into faster-growing service occupations; most just don't. But there's also evidence that men's social skills are less well-developed than women's, and that social skills are becoming more crucial to workplace success.

Put it all together, and we're at a weird moment for gender relations in the workplace. Women have long felt that the deck is stacked against them, and they aren't wrong about that. Now a growing number of men feel the deck is stacked against them, and while much of that is whining about losing unjustified privileges, some is due to real economic shifts that make things tougher on men. Women have the momentum, but men still have the corner office. It's a difficult dynamic in any case, but more widespread acknowledgement of its existence might make it a little less difficult.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. This survey was finally conducted again last year, but the data isn't out yet (when it is, it will be right here).

  2. I don't have a great answer for why women's share of employment in the two surveys switched places in the 1980s. Maybe the share of women doing off-the-books household service work fell, while the brutal recession of the early 1980s pushed men out of payroll manufacturing jobs and into independent contracting or off-the-books work.

  3. The percentage dropped as low as 55.9 percent during World War II, but 60 to 62 percent seems to have been the non-wartime norm.

  4. Up from 37.7 percent in 1980 to 48.4 percent in 2000, according to the research he cited. That share has presumably gone even higher since.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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