This Time Is Different: Women's Unemployment Rate Tops Men's

Starting with the recession of July 1981 to November 1982, and continuing with the three subsequent NBER-dated recessions of July 1990 to March 1991, March 2001 to November 2001, and December 2007 to June 2009, the unemployment rate for men has increased more during (or immediately after) a recession compared to the increase in the unemployment rate for women.  This was especially true for the recession of 1981-82, the recession of 1990-91, and the Great Recession of 2007-09.  Recessions have had men laid off or let go in greater numbers than women, leading to higher unemployment rate increases for men.

This time is different, at least through April.  The unemployment rate for men and women in February was 3.6% and 3.4%, respectively.  In April, it was 13.5% and 16.2%, respectively.  Not only did the unemployment rate for both men and women spike upward in an unprecedented fashion, but women’s unemployment rate increased by substantially more percentage points than men, something that has not occurred in this magnitude of difference in the entire U.S. historical record.  In fact, there are only a few pre-1982 recessions in which women’s unemployment rate increased more than men’s, and then the difference was a few tenths of a percentage point. In February women accounted for about 46% of the unemployed, but by April they accounted for more than 51%.

While we don’t have the April composition of the unemployed for the state of Texas or for the local community, we do have the composition of unemployment insurance claims from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).  For the period from April 1 to May 2 of this year, about 52% of the unemployment insurance claims in College Station-Bryan and statewide were made by women.

The explanation is in part the nature of the current recession.  In an attempt to mitigate the public health concerns surrounding COVID-19, government shelter-in-place restrictions and private sector choices led to reduced employment in industries with higher concentrations of female employees, including hospitality, food services, and health care.  Restaurants were closed or had reduced hours, non-essential retail stores were often closed, hotels had very few customers, dental offices were closed, and many hospitals saw reduced demand as ‘elective’ procedures were curtailed in the expectation that COVID-19 patients would stress the capacity of our hospitals. 

We will see how this plays out in the coming months.  There are some scenarios in which the female unemployment rate drops more quickly than the male rate, as dental offices and health care services return to some modified semblance of normalcy.  Women were 80% of employees in Health Care and Social Assistance industry firms in January 2020, and just over 50% in Food Services and Drinking Establishments, including Full-Service Restaurants.  As dental offices and physician offices reopen, the unemployment status of women may adjust rather quickly to the unemployment rate of men.   

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Posted: May 13, 2020 by Dennis W. Jansen, Carlos I. Navarro, Andrew J. Rettenmaier